Monday, December 16, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Makers Of Jumbo Jets Whittled To Just One


NEW YORK - Once there were three jumbo-jet manufacturers in the United States: Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing. Now there is one.

Even before yesterday's announcement that Boeing will buy McDonnell Douglas for $13.3 billion, Seattle-based Boeing was the only U.S. planemaker with the resources to make jumbo jets and design their future successors.

Lockheed left the commercial-airline business in 1983, when the 252nd L-1011 rolled off the assembly line. The plane almost bankrupted the company, now named Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed designed the L-1011 to use a Rolls-Royce engine, but by the time production began, Rolls was bankrupt, causing Lockheed costly delays. It took a $400 million loan guarantee from the federal government, which was never asked to make good on the offer, to get the production line moving.

Those few planes still in operation will become harder to maintain, and several major airlines have started to take the jets out of service. Lockheed expects to end its L-1011 maintenance business within the decade.

The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 is no longer in production. McDonnell Douglas makes a 300-passenger MD-11, but scrapped plans this fall to build its biggest and longest-range jetliner to date. McDonnell Douglas decided the risks of building the new plane, temporarily dubbed the MD-XX, were too high. Analysts had said it would cost $2 billion to $3 billion to develop the jet and upgrade the company's facilities.

The MD-XX would have had 300 to 375 seats, three engines and a newly designed wing.

But McDonnell Douglas wasn't the only manufacturer to have problems with a new plane. Boeing decided not to debut two new versions of the 747 at the September air show in Farnborough, England, historically the place where new models are introduced. The planes, code-named the 747-500X and the 747-600X, would fly farther than the existing 747s with more people aboard.

Boeing held off on the debut because it hadn't lined up enough customers to formally launch its new jumbo jets.

Airbus Industrie, which would be Boeing's only competitor if the Boeing-McDonnell merger succeeds, has the Airbus A330, with 335 seats, but hopes to break into the jumbo-jet market with development of a $14 billion jet that would seat more than 500 passengers. Boeing is considering a similar-size plane.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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