airliners

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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