updated 5/5/2005 6:53:19 PM ET 2005-05-05T22:53:19

Northwest Airlines Corp. is buying 18 Boeing 787 "Dreamliners," and will become the first North American carrier to put the fuel-efficient long-range planes into service, the company said Thursday.

The Eagan, Minn.-based carrier said it will take initial deliveries of the 787s in August 2008, and that it holds options and purchase rights for an additional 50. The 18-jet order is worth $2.2 billion at list prices, but airlines typically negotiate robust discounts with Boeing and competitor Airbus.

The Boeing Co. now has 82 firm orders plus 173 commitments for the 787s from 20 airlines in all, company spokesman Peter Conte said.

"We do consider this to be a very important order from a very important airline," Conte said. "We believe that by committing to the '87 that Northwest will be able to capitalize on the superior economics and low maintenance requirements of the 787."

The only other U.S. carriers to order the mid-range 787 so far have been Continental Airlines Inc. and tiny Primaris, but Northwest will be the first in North America to fly the plane, Conte said. Foreign carriers that have ordered them include Japanese carriers ANA and JAL, Icelandair, Korean Air, Air New Zealand, Air Canada and Air India.

The Dreamliner can carry 200 to 300 passengers and costs around $120 million. Northwest will configure it to carry 36 passengers in business class and 185 in coach.

The orders are an important boost for Boeing as it competes against the European consortium Airbus SAS, whose comparable A350 won't be available until 2010. Its chief current competitor is the A330. Northwest now flies 15 of that model and has 17 more on order. It also operates 16 Boeing 747-400s on long-haul routes to Asia.

"Any order from an airline like Northwest is very important to the (787) program," said Craig Fraser, an aerospace analyst with Fitch Ratings. "The fact that a U.S. airline would be placing an order in this environment indicates that the plane will add value to the company's operations, since orders from U.S. airlines have been very weak."

Fraser also called Northwest's order "a vote of confidence for the 787."

Northwest said it plans to use its 787s primarily on international routes.

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