May 2, 2013

Boeing 777-X factor now ‘real’, ‘unreal’ and untidy

The situation where Boeing can now offer for purchase the 777-X family which it may not formally launch until later this year is somewhat untidy. It means that the specifications of

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The situation where Boeing can now offer for purchase the 777-X family which it may not formally launch until later this year is somewhat untidy.

It means that the specifications of the new lineup will be shaped not so much by what Qantas or Virgin Australia might want, but what Emirates and the larger leasing companies demand.

They will set the parameters and the performance ‘guarantees’ not that anything an aircraft maker guarantees seems to mean all that much these days.

However the basics are obvious. The selling points of the 777-X models will be how much more efficiently they do what the 777-300ER and 777-200LR do today, and by far, in 2013, that means in their reduced fuel burn per unit of payload per distance flown.

If the current trends in packing-us-in continue, and there is no relief in sight, these jets will be at least as miserable an experience in economy as they can be today, and by 2019 or beyond, the cost conscious erosion of premium cabins may also have become more apparent.

There are two salient disclosures about technology to date. The wing of the 777-Xs, which will be offered with foldable wing tips, will be mostly composite materials.

But the fuselage will be aluminium alloy, not necessarily the same alloy as today, but metal nevertheless.

This might be argued as a rejection of the 787 composite barrel technology, where tapes of carbon fibre reinforced plastics are wound around a mandril and glued and baked together in a ply.

And while there are plenty of critics of that process, it needs to be kept in mind that if the 777-X were to do this, it would be in effect a completely new airliner series, rather than the advanced derivatives of today’s outstandingly successful 777 series.

There are some competitive issues to consider.  There would be many airlines, perhaps including Virgin Australia, that need to upgrade their long haul wide body fleets before the 777-Xs are available by say 2019, or even before the A350-1000s can be delivered from say 2018.

These are carriers that will make their choices predominantly between the 787-9, the next version of the Dreamliner due in service with Air NZ as launch customer in 2014,  and much optioned by Qantas, or the A350-900, a slightly larger airliner due to fly around about the start of June, maybe.

Some carriers, like British Airways to give a recent example, have such a large and imminent need for more fuel efficient jets that they are upgrading their fleets with both 787-9 Dreamliners and A350s, whether -900s or the later larger -1000s.

The wide body prospects for Airbus and Boeing include carriers that will order deeply from both manufacturers because they are of a scale, and of a need, that no maker can satisfy in the necessary time.

It’s the same effect that has seen large split orders for Airbus A320 new engine option or NEO models and corresponding Boeing 737 MAX series.

Both the 787-9 and the A350-900 would appear on specs to be replacement types for current fleets of aging 767-300ERs and older A330s.  Even though each of those types come in different payload/range options, they respectively represent the old and the new fleet opportunities for airlines .

But as much as Boeing, and Airbus, try to pigeon hole their new airliners as addressing this or that particular size requirement, the airlines have shown a willingness to think differently, for example, in using A330s to replace 747s on some routes, while others use 777s for the same purpose, even though the unit size is in all cases, smaller than a 747.

Boeing sees the A350 as competing with Dreamliners. Airbus sees the A350 as competing with 777s.  In fact the larger A350-1000 might not compete directly with the larger model 777-X, yet it might make some operators see it as a better answer than the A380, even though the A380 would be essential for routes to say London Heathrow from really about now onwards.

Whatever the future holds for the inevitably overlapping competitive offers of 787s, 777-Xs and A350s, it will hopefully involve less missionary type spiels about ‘game changer’ jets that turn out to be rubbish, and more seriously and meticulously argued design and engineering considerations.

The duopoly of Airbus and Boeing is quite possibly coming to an end in the 2020s anyhow, as other alignments involving the high tech sectors in China and India bring different ‘global’ design solutions to market.

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4 thoughts on “Boeing 777-X factor now ‘real’, ‘unreal’ and untidy

  1. comet

    After the delays and initial problems with the 747-8, and the disaster of the Dreamliner, I really hope that Boeing can pull itself together and do well with the 777-x, just like they did well with the original 777. We’ll see how it goes.

    Boeing and Airbus will be thrilled to know that Comac is running late with the C919… I think it will have its first flight in early 2015. For the A350, I’m putting my bets on July 2013 for its maiden flight.

  2. Achmad Osman

    Boeing – as a future passenger, I want at least a 90cm (35 inch) pitch and seat width in line with the A380. Also, the noise levels must either match or surpass the A380.
    Unless you do that, you cannot call your new 777 a “game-changer”.

    Your current 777 is great for airlines, but not good enough from a passenger viewpoint certainly not for average build humans.

  3. StickShaker

    In comparison to previous Boeing derivative programs the 777X is going to be a monumental investment in engineering and capital to produce a platform that will still be encumbered with all the legacy issues imposed by a 1990’s design along with other limitations. As highlighted, the fuselage is too narrow for a premium 10 abreast – it also imposes limits upon growth as there is not a lot of room for further stretches to improve structural efficiency as the 777-9X already sits at 76.5 meters. No doubt there will be other less obvious legacy issues.

    Boeing have chosen to optimise the design on the larger 9X which means the 8X “shrink” will have engines and a wing that are larger and heavier then they need to be – not a good situation when competing against a brand new (and fully optimised) design such as the 350-1000. The wings and engines may suit the ultra long range 8XL but such aircraft represent a small niche market. The 8X is going to be surrounded by and competing against fully optimised new designs such as the 787-10 and 350-1000. Boeing is trumpeting the advantages of commonality between the 8X and the 9X – I can’t see that outweighing the overwhelming performance advantages of the 787-10 and 350-1000 and I suspect such an approach (commonality) has more to do with keeping capital costs down than anything else. I think the 8X is going to be eaten alive by its competitors.

    The claimed efficiency gains in seat-mile costs of 20% over the 777-300ER rely to a significant extent on the arithmetic of a using 10 abreast cabin vs the 9 abreast cabin in the older 777-300ER. The 777-9X had to become a 400 seater to achieve that 20% figure. The true efficiency gains of the engine/airframe combination are likely to be in the region of 10% to 15%.

    The 777X with its CRFP wings and Li-Al fuselage is similar in concept to the earlier 350 project (350-800 and 350-900 only) which was costed at $5.3 billion in 2004 dollars. This suggests the 777X program will likely chew through some $10 billion of precious capital by the time it gets in the air. There will also be major changes to the supply chain and production facilities for the CRFP wing – there is much speculation as to where the wing will be fabricated. The 777X program is far more complex, will consume far more capital and involve more risk than any previous derivative program attempted by Boeing – these levels of complexity, cost and risk are more akin to a new program. As with the original 350 concept, the 777X is more of a hybrid sitting somewhere between a “conventional derivative” and a new program.

    The competing approaches by Boeing and Airbus to serve this large widebody market (sub-VLA) are vastly different than those of the 320 Neo vs 737 Max environment.
    For all their money and effort Boeing will get a family of three models of which only one (777-9X) is likely to sell in any quantity, there will be limited room for further growth, a questionable ability to compete with any future mid life upgrade to the 350-1000 and as a result a life span that will be nothing like that of platforms like the 787 or 350.

    While the 777X, despite its cost, is still far cheaper than a new program and quicker to market I don’t see Boeing getting quite the same bang for their buck as they usually do with derivative programs.

  4. alangirvan01

    Perhaps, if the relationship between Qantas and Emirates lasts that long, the Emirates specification for the 777X will be good enough for Qantas. EK want the 777-8XLR to carry max payload on Dubai to Los Angeles, which is some 500 miles shorter than Sydney to Dallas – so would this model be the right one for Qantas? Then the question of whether Qantas would make the main cabin, 9 abreast or 10 abreast for this long sector. Would need very good Inflight Entertainment to distract passengers from the discomfort.

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