updated 2/20/2004 5:48:53 PM ET 2004-02-20T22:48:53

Rival airplane makers Boeing and Airbus traded jabs Friday over jets that have never even flown, highlighting sharp differences over whether the future of commercial aviation lies in superjumbos or smaller models that can fly faster.

Airbus is set to roll out its massive double-decker A380 in 2006 and boasted that last year the huge plane had already outsold Boeing's jumbo 747, the biggest jetliner in the skies for several decades, by almost 9-1.

"They had the flagship of the 20th century. We believe we have the flagship of the 21st century," said John Leahy, chief commercial officer at Airbus.

Questioning the idea that bigger airplanes are better, Boeing executive Randy Tinseth said the average size of jets in key markets has been shrinking as airlines offer more flights at different times to better accommodate passengers. Tinseth touted Boeing's planned 7E7 "Dreamliner" _ a smaller jet that can fly faster with greater fuel efficiency.

Speaking to an aviation forum here, the two giants of global airplane manufacturing were gearing up their sales pitches for the Asian Aerospace 2004 air show next week in Singapore. Such events frequently turn into colorful debates between U.S.-based Boeing and Europe's Airbus.

Tinseth, Boeing's director of product and services marketing, said airlines could fly three of the 7E7s, carrying more people and using less fuel, than one of the big Airbus models between Hong Kong and Singapore, a top regional business route.

Leahy countered that the smaller Boeings would have to fly "wingtip to wingtip" to get that many passengers in the air during peak travel times, and added that crew costs, maintenance costs and other expenses would be higher.

Airbus projected that passenger traffic will soar in coming decades and Leahy said "we're not going to do that in little airplanes."

Leahy said Boeing's 7E7 appeared to be a copycat version of the medium-sized Airbus A330, with a slide show that superimposed diagrams of one jet on the other, making them look quite similar.

Boeing says its airplane, which does not yet have an initial customer, will be more passenger friendly, with bigger windows and slightly wider aisles and seats than other planes. The company has said the 7E7 probably won't enter the market before 2008.

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