On the surface, the firm order on 22 April by International Airlines Group for 18 Airbus A350-1000s with an equal number of options looks very bad for Boeing's seemingly patient 777X launch process, particularly as the owner of British Airways and Iberia Airlines described the deal as completing a replacement plan for the British flag carrier's ageing fleet of 747-400s.
Boeing still has not formally launched the 777X, and only received clearance from its board of directors to begin marketing the product to airlines a week after IAG's order for the A350-1000s.
How could Boeing stand idle with no confirmed product to offer as another major customer - along with Cathay Pacific last summer - defected to the A350-1000? Only a decade ago, Airbus seemed caught in a similar trap with the then-youthful A330 facing a resurgent challenge from the 787. Has Boeing also waited too long to cannibalise a successful and profitable franchise by failing to launch the 777X sooner, as certain key customers, including Emirates chief executive Tim Clark, dearly wanted?
The anxiety of Boeing watchers seemed palpable at the company's annual shareholders meeting on 22 May when Bank of America senior equities analyst Ronald Epstein called out Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner for "losing" British Airways with the A350-1000 order.
"I don't think we did," Conner shot back, before Epstein could finish his comment.
"Okay, explain," Epstein gamely replied.
Reading only slightly between the lines of Conner's second reply would reveal as much about the strength of his confidence in Boeing's widebody strategy and timing, as what he may believe are IAG's true intentions with regards to the A350-1000.
While the IAG press release on 22 April announcing the deal specifically states that the A350-1000 order will replace the remainder of the BA 747-400 fleet, Conner believes the airline holding company's true intentions lie elsewhere. Memo to IAG CEO Willie Walsh: Boeing doesn't believe you.
Connor also suggested that IAG's A350-1000 could end up replacing some of Iberia's A340s. "[BA] still has a very, very big 747 fleet that they need to replace and I think Willie would tell you that he's still very, very interested in the 777X. My only point is that game is not over yet. That's yet to be defined and yet to be won and our intention is to win," he added.
There is some evidence to support Conner's alternative perspective on IAG's fleet strategy.
In February 2011, Walsh told Flightglobal that IAG's first priority was replacing Iberia's 30 A340s, including 17 A340-600s and 13 A340-300s, and not BA's 747s. A month later, IAG signed a memorandum of understanding to buy eight A330s for Iberia, but that could only have been a stopgap replacement for a portion of the A340-300 fleet. IAG has done nothing since to clarify the Iberia A340 replacement strategy.
Whether the A350-1000 order is a rebuke to Boeing or an Iberia smokescreen, however, is almost beside the point. Conner's reply to Epstein's comment at the shareholders meeting makes it clear that Boeing still isn't worrying about the A350-1000, a product aimed specifically at knocking the 777-300ER off its perch on the monopoly of the 350-seat class of widebody airliners.
Indeed, Boeing is instead focusing on its next product launch of the aircraft that will replace the 747-400 and providing an option for airlines to upgrade certain routes that can support a 400-seat class aircraft with a twin-aisle jet.
The aircraft Boeing currently plans to launch first is the 400-seat 777-9X, not the 350-seat 777-8X variant, as Conner also explained at the 22 May shareholders meeting.
However, moving first with the 777-9X is a huge bet by Boeing on the viability of the 777-300ER. If the 777-9X variant is unable to appear until the "end of the decade", as Boeing says, the 777-8X will not likely appear until early in the next decade. With the A350-1000 scheduled to make its debut in 2017, the current 777-300ER may have a five-year run in direct competition before its replacement can appear.
If some critics thought Boeing was moving too slowly by failing to retire the 777-300ER by 2017, what must they think about keeping production active through 2022?
Boeing delivered the first 777-300ER only nine years ago, so it is understandably reluctant to cut short the product before its time has come. It also has the unpleasant experience of seeing the A330 facing the same dilemma in 2004, only to see the Airbus widebody become more popular than ever in the wake of the 787 delays. Airbus is now building A330s faster than any other widebody on the market, and production is widely expected to continue at reduced levels even after the A350-900 appears in commercial service in a year or more.
In any event, Boeing's strategy represents a deliberate choice to attack Airbus with a product line-up of unprecedented balance for a commercial aircraft maker.
There are no major gaps between the A350-1000 and the 550-seat A380. Both 777X variants are carefully calibrated to fill out a remarkably balanced portfolio by seat count of airliners from the 137-seat 737 Max 7 to the 467-seat 747-8 Intercontinental. It means airlines will have a tailored widebody option in 15-20% increments, including the 250-seat 787-8, 290-seat 787-9, 320-seat 787-10X, 350-seat 777-8X, 400-seat 777-9X and 467-seat 747-8I. Moreover, Boeing believes the strategy effectively "brackets" the Airbus A350 family on both ends with superior technology.
"We will have them bracketed with new technology such that we are five years down the learning curve ahead of them and that's a tough position for them," says Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, speaking at the same shareholders meeting. "So not only will we have more entrants, we will be above and below them."
The technology McNerney was referring to is most evident in the 777X's key ingredient - a carbonfibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) composite wing that Boeing calls a fourth-generation airfoil, if one accepts the first three generations were introduced between the 787-8 and 787-9.
There is no doubt the 777X wing will be special. Boeing still has not publicly released details of the precise specifications, but the baseline wingspan under study was understood to be 71.1m (233ft). That would make it the longest wingspan in Boeing's history, larger even than the 747-8's 68.5m wingspan.
It is so long that Boeing has been forced to revisit a 777-200 concept for a folding wingtip. That concept, which was dropped in 1994, proposed a 1,500kg (3,300lb) mechanism to fold a 6.9m portion of the wingspan, with the added complexity of attached ailerons and slats.
A Boeing patent application filed on 25 April shows how the design of the folding wingtip has matured over the last two decades. It proposes a hinged raked wingtip outboard of the control surfaces, with the folding mechanism contained within the wingbox for no drag penalty. Boeing has yet to clarify how the failure modes for such a concept would be considered by regulators, or, not least, accepted by passengers observing the wingtip folding process for the first time.
However, those details, and several more, will likely be made known in several months as Boeing formally launches development and signs up the first customers. By that time, the world will know what the market finally thinks about Boeing's bold 777X strategy.