Everything about how the Boeing 777X entered the market last November came layered with drama – some welcome, some not.
The follow-on to Boeing’s most successful widebody programme was revealed on the grand stage of the Dubai air show, with Boeing collecting a $100 billion haul of orders and commitments by the end of the week.
This was followed only a week later by a tense election night for a divided Puget Sound union. The International Associations of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) had to choose between keeping their pension or the final assembly of the 777X. The pro-777X side won by the slimmest possible margin.
Today, there is a calmer feeling to the 777X programme. When Boeing recently finished a preliminary round of windtunnel tests there was no drama in the minor tweaks that resulted – which included a 0.61m (2ft)-longer wingspan.
The glamour of a public roll-out is at least four years off, and a scheduled entry into service milestone still a distant six years away.
Indeed, the programme is deep in the early stages of development – a period when the company likely wishes to attract as little public attention as possible.
Instead of dealing with high-visibility flight tests and entry into service milestones, designers are making subtle tweaks to the configuration, managers are selecting suppliers and salespeople are trying to keep existing 777 passenger variants selling until the replacement arrives – assuming no unforeseen drama intervenes – in 2020.
The 777-300ER and -200LR are already a decade old, and within five years Airbus's new A350-1000 could be muscling in on business
The latter task presents perhaps the programme’s biggest challenge. Boeing is building 100 777s – a mix of the passenger-carrying 777-300ER and 777-200LR, plus the 777 Freighter – every year, and the current order backlog is about 300 aircraft short of covering the six-year wait to 2020.
John Wojick, Boeing’s senior vice-president of global sales and marketing, is not paid to express uncertainty, but he seeks to put the 777 sales challenge in numerical perspective. “We’ve got about three years of backlog – firm backlog – on the 777 today,” he says. “We’ve got six years before we get to the 777X. So I’ve got six years to fill three years worth of [backlog].
“When you look at that, that’s another 40-50 airplanes per year that we need to sell for the transition period. Last year we sold 44. I have every expectation we will sell that many this year.”
However, some analysts are sceptical Boeing can keep building 100 777s a year through to 2020. The 777-300ER and 777-200LR are already 10 years old, and within five years Airbus could have a new competitor – the A350-1000 – in service.
Boeing, however, has several options on hand to help keep the 777 backlog steady. By 2016, the company forecasts that steadily rising air freight demand will finally exhaust a saturated supply, and lead to a surge of new freighter orders. If that trend develops, the 777F could help restock the latter end of Boeing’s orderbook.
However, one key Boeing customer – Guggenheim Aviation Partners chief executive Steve Rimmer – has expressed fears this strategy would dilute already weak demand for the 747-8F further.
As Boeing’s chief salesman, Wojick argues that demand for the 777-300ER is enough to sustain the programme through the bridge to the 777X. However, some analysts warn that the widebody market is approaching saturation, at least in the near-term.
Indeed, the recent move by Emirates Airline to cancel an order for 70 A350s is interpreted by some as a sign that carriers may already have too many widebody aircraft on order. Wojick though – ever the salesman – views the order cancellation as a sales opportunity for yet more 777-300ERs.
“[Emirates] purchased the A350 thinking that airplane would be competitive with the 777-300ER,” he says. “Instead they are going to continue to take over 50 777-300ERs during the transition period, and they might even take more.”
Whether Emirates adds to its already bulging orderbook of 777-300ERs – plus a commitment to purchase 150 777Xs – or not, Boeing is taking steps to make the existing aircraft slightly more attractive as the competition strengthens.
The most important aerodynamic and propulsion improvements Boeing and its suppliers are developing are reserved for the 777X family.
The 777X is introducing a new engine – General Electric’s GE9X – a new, 72m-wide composite wing, a hybrid laminar flow vertical tail and natural laminar flow nacelles. It is this package of exterior changes that provide Boeing’s claimed 12% fuel efficiency improvement over the “competition”. However, nothing in this package can be pulled forward to induce a late rush of new orders for the 777.
The passenger cabin is a different story. Boeing pointedly decided not to replace the 777’s circular metallic fuselage on the 777X, saving itself enormous cost and risk. It also offered up an interesting challenge: how to reshape an interior designed in the late 1980s to compete with the kind of experience now offered by the 787, and in the future by the A350.
Boeing will face pressurisation challenges trying to create 787-type interior in 777X
Boeing has promised to offer airlines a “787-like” cabin experience on the 777X. The 787 sets a high bar for a metallic aircraft, with its composite structure accommodating a 6,000ft pressure altitude and greater humidity.
Boeing is considering how to lower the altitude pressurization of the 777X to 6,000ft as well, but this will likely require an internal redesign. Air at lower altitudes is denser and more humid, causing increased fatigue stress on the cabin structure.
While such an upgrade is under examination for the 777X, it is likely too far of a reach for the 777-300ER and 777-200LR.
“I will say the change in cabin pressurisation is not likely,” says Elizabeth Lund, vice-president and general manager of current 777 programmes. “There is a lot of structural reinforcement we’re doing to allow that, and it probably just doesn’t make sense to do that on the [current] 777.”
“It’s a fairly significant design change,” she adds. “If we’re in it for the [777X] anyway and we’re lengthening the fuselage and sculpting the frames and doing other things, it’s a reasonable change to go do.”
Lund’s answer echoes a comment made by Bob Feldmann, vice-president and general manager of the 777X programme, when meeting with a group of journalists in late April.
Feldmann was careful to not reveal too much about the company’s plans for using 787-style cabin pressurisation levels in the 777X.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that in every category, in every way we’re trying to duplicate [the 787],” Feldmann said. “Our surveys have showed us there is no single factor that drives how people feel in the fuselage or in the airplane.”
However, Feldmann was also clear that Boeing is considering all of the 787’s environmental cabin systems as it designs the interior architecture of the 777X.
“We’re in the middle of studying a number of different approaches to handle noise, pressure altitude, filtration and humidification – all the factors you want to study if you want to be as good as the 787,” Feldmann says.
With environmental control system changes reserved for the 777X, Lund’s task was to look for other upgrades that could help generate new orders. Not surprisingly, Boeing first looked to find ways to add up to 12 seats.
Adding redesigned, space-saving lavatories should add the majority of the seats, while in some 777 configurations Boeing also has the option of adding a third seat to rows in the aft fuselage, where the narrowing sidewall currently reduces the outboard rows to two seats.
Another design change will raise the height of the ceilings above the aisles, Lund says. The latter change is borrowed directly from the 787 cabin, and requires a redesign of the secondary support structure, she adds.