Air France eyes Boeing 777 freighter

Air France is negotiating to become the launch customer for the Boeing Co.’s new 777 freighter, a French newspaper reported Friday.

The financial daily La Tribune said the airline wants to order seven of the new planes, which are based on Boeing’s new 777-200LR passenger jet. The Everett-built plane, which had its first flight earlier this month, will be the longest-range commercial airliner ever built when it enters service with Pakistan International Airlines next year.

Such an order would be worth about $1.5 billion at list prices, although discounts are common.

Air France would not comment on the report, but a spokesman for the airline confirmed that the 777 freighter, which enters service in 2008, is the favored option to replace its eight Boeing 747-200s.

“These planes are being taken out of service progressively and replaced with new planes,” Jean-Claude Couturier said. “For freight, it’s the 777 that we’re interested in.”

Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel added that while the 777 freighter “would be an ideal airplane for Air France’s cargo operations,” the company couldn’t comment on any ongoing negotiations with the airline.

Boeing announced the launch of the 777 freighter in November 2004, and said it believes there’s a market for up to 200 of them. But Boeing has yet to sell any of the new freighters, although several airlines have said they are interested, including Singapore Airlines Cargo and EVA Air, which already has an order on the books for two of the passenger version of the jets.

“There’s a pretty lengthy list of interested parties,” Birtel said.

The 777 freighter will be the largest twin-engine cargo jet ever built, and it will be the longest-range cargo jet. Boeing says it will carry up to 101 metric tons of cargo, with a maximum range of almost 6,000 miles – far enough to fly from Paris to Hong Kong nonstop.

Boeing says it is designing the 777 freighter so that cargo airlines will be able to use the same-sized freight containers they use for 747s and so that flight crews trained on one cargo jet will be able to fly the other.

Air France – now part of Air France-KLM, the world’s largest airline – is also looking to replace its four larger 747-400ERFs, and European aircraft maker Airbus will be keen to push its mammoth A380 – whose cargo version also enters service in 2008.

Air France has ordered 10 A380 passenger jets, but Couturier suggested that a decision on whether to buy “superjumbo” freighters was some way off. “Air France has not yet given any consideration to the A380,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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