Boeing is to go ahead with the ultra-long range 777-200LR and -300ER derivatives, previously called the 777 200X/300X. The company plans to deliver the first aircraft in September 2003.

News of the long-delayed launch was dampened by Boeing's refusal to name a launch customer. Candidates are thought to include Japan Airlines, EVA Air, Air France, Emirates, International Lease Finance and General Electric Capital Aircraft Services (GECAS).

Commitments are believed to have been made for at least 30 aircraft, most of them -300ERs. Phil Condit, Boeing chairman and chief executive, says: "Customers choose when they want to announce. We have more than enough commitments to make absolutely sure we have a winning programme."

Boeing's board approved the 777X for launch at its meeting on 28 February, despite apparently not being in a position to name a customer.

"The business case for these aircraft is so compelling, and the market so strong, that our board of directors completely gave their approval for a firm go-ahead yesterday," says Condit.

Speculation that last minute haggling over favourable launch terms was the cause of the customer omission was fuelled by comments from Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, the exclusive engine supplier to the new programme. He says: "We're still trying to get the right price. These guys are tough."

James McNerney, GE Aircraft Engines president and chief executive, confirms that GECAS has "a strong interest in the new 777" and adds that "there will be some pretty major airlines launching these aircraft".

Go-ahead for the new 777 variants gives Boeing a genuine long-range, large to medium capacity airliner rival to the Airbus A340-500 and -600 models in development.

Sales of the Airbus aircraft have been slow since industrial launch in December 1997, with a total of 63 firm orders and 55 options for 10 airlines. The first -600 is due for delivery in March 2002, followed by the -500 in September.

With the 777X launch, Boeing is forecasting total 777 family sales of around 2,000, of which a quarter could be the new derivatives. A total of 452 777s have been sold since the type was launched in October 1990. Of those, 266 aircraft have been delivered.

McNerney says that, based on "very conservative" estimates of 450-500 sales of the 777X, GE expects to make $15 billion to $20 billion over the next 20 years. Neither company will comment on launch costs of the derivative series, though GE is believed to be contributing almost $500 million of the programme's estimated $2 billion costs.

"We are sharing development costs and it is a very cost-efficient programme, but we are not [publicly] sharing those details," says Condit.

With the formal go-ahead of the series, Boeing and GE have also finalised the baseline specifications and nominal performance of both models. Range estimates for the 301-passenger 777-200LR now stand at 16,330km (8,825nm), while the 359 passenger 777-300ER is expected to have a range of 13,380km.

This will enable the -200LR to fly sectors such as Singapore-New York or Paris-Taipei, while the -300ER will be able to operate non-stop between Paris and Los Angeles and Johannesburg and London.

Performance estimates are based on a maximum take off weight of 340,200kg for both models and a maximum fuel capacity of 195,270l (with two 7,000l auxiliary tanks) for the-200LR and 181,260l for the-300ER. The -200LR has provision for up to three auxiliary tanks.

Preliminary loads design work, a critical first step in the development process, is due to begin this month and the overall schedule will not be affected by the current engineers' strike, says Condit.

Firm aircraft configuration is expected to be completed by March 2001 with 25% engineering design release in September next year. Major assembly of the first-300ER is to start in August 2002, with roll-out scheduled for October that year and first flight two months later. Certification is due in August 2003 with initial deliveries the following month. The timescale for the -200LR is expected to lag that of the -300ER by between four and six months.

Boeing is continuing to study a possible 777-100X shrink derivative, largely in response to Singapore Airlines' (SIA) requirement for a 250-seater replacement for its Airbus A310s. Airbus has accelerated its A330-100 plans for the SIA competition.

Source: Flight International