updated 1/28/2005 2:57:30 PM ET 2005-01-28T19:57:30

Boeing Co. Friday signed a preliminary deal with China, worth about $7.2 billion, to sell 60 7E7 Dreamliner aircraft to six Chinese airlines.

The aircraft are being purchased by China Southern Airlines Co Ltd., China Eastern Airlines Corp Ltd., Air China, Shanghai Airlines Co Ltd., Hainan Airlines Co Ltd. and Xiamen Airlines.

Boeing also announced at the signing ceremony, held at the U.S. Department of Commerce, that it was changing the model number of the plane to 787 from 7E7.

The orders are a coup for Boeing as it battles European rival Airbus for customers. They are also a big boost for the Dreamliner, a mid-sized airliner expected to offer low fuel and operating costs when it debuts in 2008.

Boeing missed its target of 200 firm commitments for the Dreamliner by the end of 2004 despite late-year deals with Japan Airlines Corp. and Continental Airlines Inc..

The 787 range will include models with 217 to 289 seats, costing about $120 million each.

Boeing has predicted that China will become the world’s second largest commercial aviation market, behind the United States, within 20 years. The company says China will need 2,300 planes over the next two decades as increasingly well-off Chinese take to the air.

The deal comes as Airbus, an affiliate of European aerospace company EADS, has been making inroads in the Asian markets which Boeing long dominated.

Airbus said Friday it had received orders for five of its superjumbo A380 aircraft from China Southern and hoped to sell the new plane to a second Chinese airline later in 2005. And Air China said Thursday it had agreed to buy 20 Airbus A330-200 planes.

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