WHEN United Airlines takes delivery of its first three Boeing 777s this month and puts them into service early next month, it will mark the beginning of the end of one of the US manufacturer's most ambitious projects. The ultra high-tech 777, or Triple Seven as it is commonly referred to, is one of the most advanced commercial aircraft to take to the skies. Although they probably won't admit it, the twin-engine wide body is also one of the greatest gambles Boeing executives have made. The Seattle-based Boeing, Washington state's largest corporate employer, is betting much of its future on the success of the new aircraft. It boasts the latest in computer-controlled flight technology, early aviation regulator safety certification, a higher-than-average cruising speed, easily adaptable seat configuration, wider seats, user-friendly controls for flight attendants, and 'no-slam' toilet seats and doors. The high expectations of the aircraft, Boeing's first new model in more than 13 years, have already pushed the company's share price up about 30 per cent from the 52-week low of US$32.50. More than 140 firm orders for the 777 have already been placed, and the stock is forecast to continue rising. Everything right now seems well for Boeing. But not all is perfect. The manufacturer of the world's largest commercial aircraft is expected to lay off about 7,000 people by the end of the year, and that is on top of the almost 50,000 jobs it has reduced in the past six years. When Boeing launched the 777 programme in October 1990, supported by United Airlines, which placed firm orders for 34 and options for 34 more, it went out to the customers to see what they wanted. The result is an aeroplane that flight attendants have raved about, pilots say they love to fly and airlines say they are confident they will have success with. It is filled with design concepts never before offered to airlines, some of which Cathay Pacific Airways engineering director Roland Fairfield says is a result of the airline's input. Cathay has placed firm orders for 11 and has options for 11 more. It has a larger cargo hold than that of the jumbo 747-400, will have been certified for trans-Atlantic crossings within weeks, holds more than 300 passengers, seating ranges from six-to 10-abreast with two aisles, has a 7,010-kilometre range, a mach 0.84 cruising speed and is economically efficient. Before Boeing had even launched the 777, however, competitors Airbus Industrie and McDonnell Douglas were already rolling out or preparing to deliver their four models of the 250 to 350-seat aircraft market - the A330, A340-200, A340-300 and the MD-11. Boeing regional director product marketing Dan Olasen counters that the delay gave it the opportunity to add details left out by US-based McDonnell Douglas and arch rival Airbus, a consortium of European countries. Boeing claims its 777 can out-perform the models produced by both its competitors in almost every way. 'Although a total of 400 [competitor aircraft] were sold before we even started . . . the 777 has captured 72 per cent of the market share in the category since its launch in 1990,' Mr Olasen said. Despite the fanfare surrounding the launch of the 777, analysts say, much of its success - and perhaps that of the company itself - depends on securing the full support of its key customers in order to continue the gloating at present going on in the aviation circles of Seattle. Boeing claims that the 777 has already beaten Airbus Industrie in selling more in the size and range class, but since 1993 only a handful of 777s have been purchased. Until promises are followed through by Boeing, many airlines holding options to purchase - particularly those from Asia - may not be enticed to firm up their orders. Much depends on the anticipated next two models of the 777 - the longer range B-class and the stretched C-class. The B-class would have a range of 11,500 km while the C-class model would add many more seats. A longer-range version and a stretched model are badly wanted in Asia, which is a world-leader in high-capacity, long-haul travel. Boeing has said it wants to make both but has not yet formally announced the two programmes. Of the eight key airlines consulted in the production designs of the 777, three were from the US, one was from Europe and four were from Asia. 'This aeroplane is very much designed with Asia in mind,' Mr Olasen said. But with the airline industry in the state it is in, few want to take the precarious step to put solid money down on an aircraft that, although unlikely, may never fly. Boeing needs the financial support to begin the masses of man-hours needed in development and the billions of dollars that costs. And it still needs to sell many, many more 777s to make back the billions of dollars already invested in designing and producing the first of the new aircraft. Mr Fairfield, for one, raves about the 777's attributes. He says its high-capacity, long-range capabilities will suit Cathay perfectly, given Hong Kong's current constraints, such as a jam-packed airport. But he also says the airline is far from deciding whether it will turn its 11 options into firm orders for either the 777s or Airbus Industrie A330s and A340s it has purchased. He said much depended on whether the stretch version gets off the ground quickly enough. Cathay, however, will not give any guarantees to help Boeing launch the stretch programme.