Boeing is close to offering a revamped version of its 777 wide-body long-haul jet that would be available for service around 2020, the president of Emirates airline has said.
"I think they are ready to go on that," Tim Clark said during a trade show in Berlin. "I am hoping that within the next two or three weeks, we will engage with Boeing almost on a formal basis."
Boeing has for years enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the lucrative 350-400 seat market with its most profitable airliner, the 777, but aims to shore up its position with fresh designs as rival Airbus develops a competing aircraft called the A350-1000.
The mini-jumbo market is seen as the next major battleground between the planemaker giants.
A formal decision to offer the revamped 777 would mark a return to business after a crisis over the grounding of Boeing's 787 Dreamliners, though Clark said the planemaker's teams had worked in parallel.
Clark said the jet, provisionally code-named 777X, would fly further and more efficiently than Boeing's 777-300ER, recently the U.S. company's most popular wide-body jet.
It would deploy a larger version of the tapered carbon-composite wing designed for the 787 Dreamliner, which Clark described as the "best wing" ever designed by Boeing.
Industry sources have said the wing will feature folding wingtips so that the aircraft can fit inside the maximum space allotted for aircraft of its category at global airports.
Emirates, the world's largest 777 customer, will have some 40 777s falling due for replacement between 2017 and 2020 but ultimately its potential requirement could be far higher.
"If you look at the total number, it is 175 that have got to go out," Clark said. Emirates usually retires aircraft after 12 years in service.
Emirates has yet to decide actual potential orders and is due to receive 777-300ER aircraft even after 2020, he said.
"Boeing is looking at a long delivery stream of (777) replacements," Clark said. "But by the time it comes to market there will be 40 or 50 Emirates aircraft which will have been (ready for retirement), so they are obviously identifying that as an initial order.
"I am not saying we are going to do that. I am just saying it is kind of heading that way."
Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Ray Conner told analysts last week that it was working on the business case for the 777X and felt it would be in "relatively good shape once we get through the (787) battery issue".
Airbus claims its A350-1000, due to enter service in 2017, will be more efficient than the 777 because it embraces a bigger leap in technology, having been based on the same all-composite fuselage Airbus is using to combat the lightweight Dreamliner.
However, it has blamed a slow start in sales of the 350-seat jet on a shortage of available production slots.
The shortage led some executives to predict a new A350 assembly line to boost output, but industry sources say draft plans call simply for expansion of its existing A350 facility.
Clark, who is also a major Airbus customer, said he would look at extra A350-1000s if they became available but expressed caution after repeated industry development delays.
Echoing the head of launch customer Qatar Airways, he said Airbus hoped to have an earlier version of the A350 flying by the Paris air show on June 17-21 or shortly afterwards.
Clark reiterated Emirates' potential interest in more Airbus A380 superjumbo orders depending on future capacity at its Dubai hub, but said there were no immediate plans for a new order.
Emirates is by far the largest customer for the world's largest airliner with a total order for 90 aircraft, about a third of which have already been delivered.