Billionaire customers: Boeing may face grim future

Billionaire customers: Boeing may face grim future
SEATTLE - Two major customers of The Boeing Co. predicted a potentially grim future for the aerospace giant Friday during a delivery ceremony for a new jetliner.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, blasted The Boeing Co. for delays and other problems caused in part by last year's machinists union strike.

Virgin Air wants 'miracle pilot'

Richard Branson wants to steal "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot Capt. Chesley Sullenberger away from U.S. Airways.

"I’d like him to come fly for us," Branson told the New York Daily News. "We’ll make him the best-paid pilot at Virgin — we’ll give him double (the salary of) anybody else. ... The man can write his own ticket with me."

Sullenberger, who saved the lives of 155 people when he landed a jetliner in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, sounded interested in the offer, the Daily News reported.

Branson told KOMO News on Friday that it was "a fun offer."

"Whether we can see if we can make it a bit more of a real offer because he's the most remarkable pilot alive today and we would love for him to come work for Virgin," Branson added.

And Steven Udvar-Hazy, the CEO of International Lease Finance Corp., said Boeing and rival Airbus could see production drop as much as 35 percent in two years. His company is the No. 1 buyer of Boeing 777s.

It was a double-barreled blast of grim reality, and came on top of this week's cancellation of 16 orders for Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

Virgin's Branson was in Seattle on Friday for the launch of his newest airline, V-Australia.

Branson cavorted with cabin crew attendants in bikinis Friday amid fake palm trees before the plane took off in rainy weather for Los Angeles. Branson himself was wearing an umbrella hat and a T-shirt that said "size does matter" during the event.

"If you can make a splash when you launch a new route or a new company, you're more likely to get on the front pages rather than the back pages," he said.

The plane will go into service on a Los Angeles-Sydney route. It's the first of seven new 777-300ERs for the new V Australia airline.

"Normally when I fly, things we end up in the sea, balloons in the oceans, specifically. This is going to be fun. I've never flown in a 777 before," he said.

Despite all the glitz and glamour of Friday's event, Branson was especially blunt in his comments regarding Boeing's latest troubles.

"It makes you think twice if you that situation going on at a company and that's very sad.

"If people in Seattle build our planes and deliver them on time and, to be frank, don't go on strike, then we'll continue to work with Boeing. If we have our airline completely messed up, with tremendous damage done to our own work force, then we'll go to Embraer or Airbus," he said.

Branson also noted that other aircraft manufacturers are "cropping up in the world."

Branson was in town to take delivery of the first plane, a 777-300ER, for V Australia, a new airline initially linking the West Coast and Australia.

"The delay on the 787 has been an absolute nightmare, and it's cost us a fortune. It really does make us think, 'Do we want to take a risk on Boeing in the future?' " Branson said.

He added: "It's just something that we can't afford to have that happen. The world is difficult enough without self-inflicted injuries."

Udvar-Hazy told KOMO News that large production cuts are all but certain at Boeing and its archrival, Europe-based Airbus.

Both companies have predicted a drop in orders this year. Udvar-Hazy said the slump will be longer than the decline after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"This could be a year where the number of net cancellations and deferrals actually exceed genuine new orders," Udvar-Hazy told reporters at the event. While Hazy said he's not predicting that, "certainly the elements are out there for that to happen."

Boeing issued a statement on Friday in response to the customers' comments.

"We never want to disappoint our customers. We are committed to doing everything we can in the future to satisfy our customers in the manner they deserve," the statement read.