Boeing has started offering its long-awaited 777X long-range jet, paving the way for a “mini-jumbo” war with Airbus.
The move backed by Boeing's board means that the commercial aircraft division can begin taking orders for a revamped version of its top-selling wide-bodied jet, the 777, which could include folding wingtips and new engines from General Electric.
Boeing declined to discuss the outcome of Monday's board meeting but said it was pushing ahead with the project to update the twin-engine jet, in service since the 1990s.
"We are taking the next step when it comes to engaging customers on the 777X," spokesman Doug Alder said. The company has "begun to discuss additional technical, pricing and schedule details with customers", he added.
Reuters reported on April 24 that Boeing was ready to go ahead with the project "within weeks", after one of its key customers, British Airways, placed a $6bn order for A350-1000 jets from rival Airbus.
Until now, Boeing has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the lucrative market for large twin-engine jets, but Airbus has started challenging that position with its 350-seat A350-1000 due to enter service in 2017.
Boeing's response is a substantial overhaul in the design of the 777, expected to enter service around 2020.
Industry insiders said the Boeing board had approved the so-called "authority to offer", allowing sales to proceed, though they declined to be identified because they are not authorised to discuss actions of the board.
After attracting enough orders, Boeing would go back to the board for permission to start developing and building the jet.
If launched, the programme would bring billions of dollars of business to suppliers of aircraft parts. In March, Boeing chose General Electric to develop the engines, renewing their exclusive partnership on the most recent 777s.
The original 777 was introduced in 1995 and is the last new plane Boeing developed before the 787. Its most popular version is the more recent 777-300ER.
The 777X would compete from around the turn of the decade with the Airbus A350-1000 to carve up a potential market of at least 2,000 aircraft worth about $500 billion over 20 years.
The cost of the 777X development has not been disclosed but after industrial delays followed by a grounding of its 787 Dreamliner, Boeing will hope that upgrading a familiar jet costs significantly less than the $15bn for an all-new aircraft.
"Boeing has been waiting to see what happened with the A350-1000, and the BA order clearly swung their decision," said Agency Partners analyst Nick Cunningham in London.
"It could be an awesome competitor, given the success of 777-300ER, but I suspect it will end up having most of the cost and risk of a complete new programme."
Airbus says that its carbon-composite A350 is lighter and cheaper to run than the 777X, which will keep a metallic body but Boeing is expected to argue that an all-new wing and new engine will make the 400-seat 777X cheaper to operate per seat.
The main model, the 777-9X, would have about 406 seats and a range of more than 8,100 nautical miles, aiming to leapfrog the 350-seat A350-1000, two sources briefed on Boeing's plans said.
It would have a new carbon-composite wing and folding wing tips to increase wing span without needing more parking space, which would incur additional airport fees. Boeing also is thought to be considering a smaller, longer-range 777-8X.