ByJohn S. McClenahen New orders for airplanes, electrical equipment and other durable manufactured goods increased $2.7 billion -- 1.5% -- in February to $179.4 billion, reports the U.S. Commerce Department's Bureau of the Census. It was the closely watched economic indicator's third consecutive monthly increase. Gerald D. Cohen, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York, characterizes the February increase as "softer than expected." But, he says, it's "still consistent with a strong jump" in GDP growth during the current calendar quarter. How strong? Merrill Lynch is forecasting "about" a 6% annual rate. Delving into the details of durables, in dollar terms, transportation equipment, a category that includes aircraft and aircraft parts, posted the largest month-to-month increase in new orders, a $4.4 billion rise to $55.3 billion in February. New orders for electrical equipment reached $9.5 billion, a $500 million increase from January. In contrast, new orders for computers and electronic products were down for the first time since September 2001; they fell $800 million to $33.6 billion. Durable goods manufacturers continued to cut inventories. They fell 0.5% in February to $278.7 billion, their 13th consecutive monthly decline.