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The Boeing 777-X files get updated

During a week in which Qantas did all the heavy ditch digging and Virgin Australia made sure not to interrupt its toils, word came that both carriers have recently been shown some possible developments of the Boeing 777.

In terms of their focus on urgent and immediate issues, it must have been a difficult time for either airline to get more than politely interested in a concept which is neither firm in specifications nor capable of any sort of offer from Boeing without being further refined and then approved by its board.

But it is important as a reminder that Boeing is up to something that could be immensely important to Qantas, Virgin Australia and their competitors.

This recent brief item in Aviation Week leaves out a few details. The 777-X factor that comes across most clearly amid all the possibilities Boeing is contemplating will be a wingspan close to 80 metres, that is, as wide if not wider than the wing on the A380, and that gust load alleviation technology will be critical to lessening the challenges this presents in terms of weight and efficiency. Which isn’t surprising, even though Boeing isn’t choosing this early between significant use of composites or hybrid or upgraded metallic alloys in what is a predominantly aluminium airframe in current 777s.

The ‘discussions’ also confirm that Boeing is considering 777 upgrades as an alternative to extracting the necessary efficiencies from the 787 Dreamliner family. Without leaping to conclusions, it is important to keep asking where, or when, will the benefits of composites promised for the 787s, and the emerging Airbus A350 lineup, deliver on the hype, and have those benefits been outpaced by further developments in alloys?

The factor Boeing seems keenest to explore with the Australian carriers is range-payload efficiency benefits. There are two considerations in play. On the one hand, Boeing is naturally keen to trump the all new Airbus A350 family, especially the A350-1000 which poses an obvious risk to the 777-300ER. The other is the development of the 777 line to offer an airliner with the payload of the current -300ER model flown here by Emirates and V Australia with the extended range capabilities of the -200LR, notably seen in Australia operating Delta, Air Canada and Emirates services. The 777, like the A380, has the potential to become an airliner able to fly non-stop with a commercially useful payload between London and any Australian city.

The notion of being able to fly past the Singapore and Dubai hubs used with such devastating effect on Qantas by Singapore Airlines and Emirates has long been a dream that successive managements of the flying kangaroo have reached out for, only to have it stay just beyond their reach, their hopes for an ultra-long range 787 having been extinguished by the troubled record of that program.

The longest route flown by an airline, the Singapore Airlines A340-500 service between Newark and Changi, involves flight times of up to 18 hours 50 minutes, and the most realistic estimates of the time to fly from Sydney to London, and arrive with legal fuel reserves for holding, going around or diverting are around 21 hours.

Think about it. That’s tonnes of extra fuel that require even more tonnes of fuel just to carry it all the way to the airspace over eastern Europe, where it may never be needed.

Think about the massive amount of fuel that has to be lofted off a hot runway in Sydney at the start of such a flight, all the time with enough power to become airborne if one engine shuts down at a point where the jet has become too fast to stop on the remaining runway.

These are everyday considerations for flights to say Los Angeles lasting just over 13 hours, but incredibly demanding at this stage of airliner technologies for a flight that will be airborne for an extra 7-8 hours, and needs to climb high enough when it is still ultra heavy to run its engines with acceptable efficiency, as it is no good being confined to say 25,000 feet for hours before the jet loses enough mass to rise to 35,000 feet and eventually 41,000 feet or slightly higher.

The 777-X will have to do these things, as will any version of the A380 that exploits the unused potential of its wing, and in each case, use engines that will be considerably improved compared to the best available today.

It is doubtful that either Qantas group CEO Alan Joyce or Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti would spend even minutes considering a 777-X in these difficult times.

But somewhere in both airlines, there has to be a set of 777-X files, and they could become of material importance in the next few years.

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  • 1
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    IMO the long-term future of the kangaroo route features two different plane configurations – a 777X or a 350XWB fitted solely with business and first class seats, flying nonstop and direct, and an A380 with mostly economy/premium economy seats for the plebs, stopping over in Singapore.

  • 2
    joey
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Let me put it out there that I suspect some of the speculation is a bit ambitious. $10 that all we’ll see is a 15% fuel burn reduction – and that will be enough.

  • 3
    PJKidding
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Agreed johnb78.

    Even if they could solve the problem over that distance, it would still always be much cheaper to transport the higher density economy passengers with a fuel stop somewhere on the way (as often happens on Cargo flights) but the lower density and higher paying premium passengers would make it viable.

    But I would think that for Qantas, it would still be the flights to LAX, Dallas, etc that would benefit most by making them as logistically straight forward as flying to Asia is today.

    I suspect that Emirates would also be looking for a 777-X type aircraft for its West Coast USA flights.
    I recently flew Dubai to LA in an Emirates 777-300ER and was initially surprised at how many empty seats there were on the flight compared to most other Emirates flights I had taken. (I even ended up with 4 seats to my self)
    But it wasn’t until the flight attendant came back empty handed when I had asked for a copy of the missing in-flight magazines from my seat pocket that I it dawned on me that the flight must be severely load constrained due to the distance and that they had removed anything they could to reduce the weight!

  • 4
    johnny7713
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    “Without leaping to conclusions, it is important to keep asking where, or when, will the benefits of composites promised for the 787s, and the emerging Airbus A350 lineup, deliver on the hype”

    The most common answers I have heard to those questions are:

    1. When production technology improves sufficiently such that the safety factors required for composite designs can be lowered to the level of current metal designs.

    2. When industry engineers gain enough experience / confidence in composite design to move away from the current ‘black metal’ designs, where the structural shapes are designed as if for metals and composites are used that are tailored to behave as much as metals as possible.

  • 5
    R. Ockape
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Ben, the 777-x could fly SYD – LHR on a teaspoonful of fuel in under an hour and the current board would still reject it. Why? It contains that most accursed of numbers (777) which would require the board to admit something that was absolute anathema to them ie. “We made a mistake”.

    QANTAS is an airline that prides itself on a culture of self reporting ie.admitting to oneself and management systems that one made a mistake. It is long overdue that the board took a leaf from its professional employees’ book and started admitting its own errors.

    Maybe from that point, we could start to move together in vaguely constructive manner?

  • 6
    Allan Moyes
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid as someone who hates flights lasting longer than 8 hours (12 hours and I’m ready to climb the wall), the thought of being on an aircraft for 19 to 21 hours fills me with horror. There is no way I’d get on one, so it would still be a Singapore stopover or equivalent for me.

    I know it’s nostalgic and impractical in the world of flying today but I adored those flights to Europe that made about 6 or more stops in between – my very first flight being London/Zurich/Rome/Beirut/Bahrain/Delhi/Bangkok/Hong Kong/Darwin and Sydney on a BOAC 707.

  • 7
    AngMoh
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    Having done the SIN-EWR-SIN route on executive economy, I think it is an absolute nightmare in normal economy. When I flew it executive economy (21″ wide seats, 37″ legroom) was empty while business was fully booked 2 months in advance. It was 18h:45m to New York flying over Alaska and 18h:30m to Sing flying over Europe (literally around the world). Even on executive economy it was painful, a lot worse than the 16h non-stop flight to LAX.
    I can not see SYD-LHR flights with a normal seating happen unless they go supersonic. Maybe that will happen by 2060….

  • 8
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    PJK: this is why Virgin Atlantic still doesn’t have an in-flight magazine – in the days when they were a budget airline and the spiritual heirs to Freddie Laker, they worked out that 300 magazines on a 747-200 added 100kg of weight per flight and nobody minded not having one.

    Allan: damn right. I can live with 14h of economy on East Asia-LHR, but that doesn’t mean I like it. I love that BA009 used to go LHR-BOM-CAL-JAK-PER-SYD (in the All Four Engines Have Failed, 742 days), I’d be delighted to take that flight now, with a stopover more or less everywhere. Sadly, dead and gone days.

    Ang: surely they don’t have economy seats on SIN-EWR-SIN? I thought it was strictly premium/business/first?

  • 9
    TomTom
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    I flew return trip Dubai-Atlanta in Delta B777-200LR, about 15.5 hrs, with economy to US standards. It was miserable – and I am not tall and had an aisle seat. The airplane was full of huge US redneck types who go to Iraq on contracts; it was excruciating for them. However, I figure that I am going to feel like dogmeat no matter how I get there, so I’ll always opt for the long non-stop versus the possibly circuitous connection which adds 1.5 – 5 hours to the total trip time (not to mention possibility of a missed connection, delay or cancellation to the second flight, and additional security hassle.)

    Continental Delhi-Newark, right over the North Pole and longer than Dubai-Atlanta, was less onerous than Delta.

    I guess we can all survive one or two trips like that, but if Qantas is to make us regulars for a LHR non-stop, it cannot be business as usual on board – especially for the long-suffering economy passengers.

    At what point to these aircraft become bathroom-limited; i.e., three meals served to 300-400 passengers over 21 hours – that’s a lot of lavatory tank capacity and fluid, and hand-washing water, for which to account?

  • 10
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    AngMoh’s experience was on the initial SQ A345 layout, which was a mix of premium economy in a seven across format and an improved version (longer) of the old Raffles business class slopers.

    After SQ adopted the current long haul business class format it turned the A345s into 98 seat all business class jets, with I think two seats blocked off for crew rests.

    Painful or not, one of the most sublime things about the ultra long range northern polar routes is the way they hang onto the sunrise/sunset divide on certain routings and times of the year for many hours, or when in the winter months, the full moon is above the night time horizon for many hours, as you cross the frozen arctic wastes from Greenland, past Spitzbergen and then down across Siberia and something like normal sunrises and sunsets can occur. Conversely, flying those routes in the continuous polar day is painfully blindingly bright without good sun glasses and a seat way up the back where you are less likely to annoy other passengers by raising the shades.

    I have spoken to Cathay Pacific pilots who say that approaching the north pole when the day/night divide is apparent is something sublime and unique in flying seen from ‘the world’s best office’ and never routine.

  • 11
    ghostwhowalksnz
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    The answer is obvious, commercial tankers, especially for the last 4-5 hours . Wouldn’t work for an over water or polar route in case the coupling broke but the passengers wouldn’t even be aware it was happening

  • 12
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Aha! For a moment (before I fully woke up) I had this flash of the Russian Air Force paying for itself by diverting tankers to rendevous with transiting 777-Xs over the northern Urals. Then I saw another, really big FLASH, and woke up in fright!

  • 13
    ggm
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I just finished Leo McKinstry’s “Lancaster” and it notes that a flying tanker for domestic airlines doing the UK-US run was precisely what they planned, before the comet made it uneccessary..

  • 14
    PJKidding
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    johnb78 said:
    PJK: this is why Virgin Atlantic still doesn’t have an in-flight magazine – in the days when they were a budget airline and the spiritual heirs to Freddie Laker, they worked out that 300 magazines on a 747-200 added 100kg of weight per flight and nobody minded not having one.

    Yes no real point anymore in having them especially now with the advent of IFE.
    I read that Virgin America has a really advanced IFE that you can even order your drinks/snacks through. Does Virgin Atlantic do something similar?
    (not had the chance to fly on either yet)

    Although in this case about Emirates, they do fly with a collection of very heavy packs consisting of in-flight magazine, movie guide, and duty free guide on all other flights I’ve flown with them so clearly a case of just really reducing every possible bit of weight on this particular sector.

    What I find interesting though is that LCC’s such as Tiger, Air Asia, and Cebu Pacific all have inflight magazines so it would seem that the revenue from advertising must outweigh the cost of production, printing, and fuel burn to make it viable?

    TomTom said:
    At what point to these aircraft become bathroom-limited; i.e., three meals served to 300-400 passengers over 21 hours – that’s a lot of lavatory tank capacity and fluid, and hand-washing water, for which to account?

    Indeed, I’ve also been one to wonder about the projections for loo capacity when on A320′s and that sewage tank display comes up on the front screen showing thats its almost full and we’re boarding a full flight that is about to start a 3.5hr flight to somewhere :-)

  • 15
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Virgin Atlantic is currently behind the curve on IFE – its 340s and 744s are fairly old and so although they have VOD systems, they don’t do anything particularly sophisticated. I think the on-order A330s are supposed to have some pretty cool things.

    I suspect part of the ad-yield point is that an LCC is targeting a specific geographic market, whereas unless you’re a super-global brand, there isn’t much targeting you can put in VX’s generic magazine (someone flying from New York to Nairobi doesn’t have too much in common with someone flying from Sydney to Hong Kong)

  • 16
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    that sewage tank display comes up on the front screen showing thats its almost full

    I’m surprised it’s cost-effective to literally shovel shit from place to place…!

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