Boeing plans to begin offering the ultra-long-range 777-200X/300X to airlines by the end of the year, following its selection of General Electric as exclusive engine supplier to the programme.

The agreement with GE is for the life of the programme and comes after one of the most bitter battles in commercial jet engine history. GE's GE90-115B engine, a 115,000lb-thrust (510kN) derivative of the GE90, was chosen over competing bids from Rolls-Royce with the Trent 8115 and Pratt & Whitney with an all-new turbofan.

The decision was sealed early this month at meetings involving Boeing chief executive Phil Condit, Boeing Commercial president Alan Mulally GE president Jack Welch and GE Aircraft Engines president James McNerney as well as Boeing Commercial product strategy and development vice- president, John Roundhill.

"It was a tough, tough decision" says Roundhill. "The bottom line was GE's bid was overall better.

"This included ability to meet noise requirements - a real driver, a look at the schedule in detail and customer service-but the business proposals were a key part of it."

Although neither party is willing to detail the business proposal, it is understood to include "substantial" financial support from GE in the region of $100 million towards the development of the airframe. GE also estimates additional development costs of around $400 million for the GE90-115B. The GE contribution will be directed towards "areas that change as a result of the higher thrust requirement", says a programme source.

Another factor which Boeing and GE acknowledge played a part is the buying power of GECAS - the engine maker's commercial aircraft leasing and financing arm. "We expect them to be a participant on the aircraft," says GE, although the engine maker cautions that the leasing company will not necessarily be a launch customer.

Meanwhile, GE's McNerney is categorical that other GE engines and Boeing airframes were not involved in the business arrangements behind the deal. "This was about the 777 and GE90 only. The potential we envisioned when we started the GE90 would not have been met unless we had this application. The sweetest part of this engine is this thrust level - this is what it was built for."

Lower thrust versions of the engine have not performed well in the marketplace, coming third behind R-R and Pratt & Whitney offerings. Both companies may lose existing customers as a result of the 777X decision, however.

The estimated market for the 777-200X/300X is around 500 aircraft - an amount considered too small by GE and Boeing to make an engine choice worthwhile.

Despite the threat of alienating several key 777 customers by its action, Boeing says "the business case didn't allow us to do anything else". Roundhill claims that "by and large, the airline reaction is understanding of what we had to do. However, we have to wait and see what the full reaction is."

R-R, which has the leading 777 market share, is hoping customer reaction may yet force a change of policy at Boeing as Trent users such as American Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific make their feelings known. In the meantime, the UK company is continuing work on the Trent 8115.

The agreement with GE covers exclusivity for all applications above 318,000kg (700,000lb) gross weight. "This gives us good separation from the existing family [at around 298,000kg]" says Roundhill. It will also cover a variety of gross weight options below the maximum take-off weight of 340,500kg.

Assuming customer interest stretches beyond the 25 aircraft order required the 777X will be launched early next year, with initial entry into service due around mid-2003. The aircraft is being looked at as a 747 replacement with the 300X having a range of 13,400km (7,250nm) and seating in a two-class configuration of 359. Its stablemate will have a range of 16,280km and seat 301 people.

Source: Flight International