Boeing is engaged with Qantas on its "Project Sunrise" for ultra-long-haul flights from Australia, but is wary about creating an aircraft variant that is too niche.
Randy Tinseth, Boeing's vice-president of marketing, says that manufacturer is "working closely" with Qantas.
"In general, we're in a pretty good place because when you look at the 777, when you look at the 787, we have the longest-range, most capable airplanes in the market today."
Tinseth notes that Qantas used the 787-9 to open the 7,837nm (14,498km) Perth-London route in March, the third-longest commercial route in the world, and the first direct link between Australia and the UK. In May, the carrier firmed options for six additional 787-9s, which will eventually take its fleet to 14 units.
The Project Sunrise design challenge posed by Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce to Airbus and Boeing calls for a jet that can perform nonstop services from Sydney and Melbourne to New York and London.
Boeing would address this with the 777-8, an aircraft due to enter service in 2022.
"Our engineering team loves challenges, so they're looking at ways to address [Project Sunrise]," he says. "You get more range out of the airplane by addressing the aerodynamics, by making it lighter, and increasing the take-off weight – which of course usually means you make it heavier."
He claims that the 777's larger wing and General Electric GE9X engines will give it an edge over the A350-1000.
"I like where we are today in terms of our widebody capabilities," he says.
He stresses, however, that the true rationale of the 777-8 is as the successor to the 777-300ER – and not specifically ultra-long-haul operations, which inherently carry more risk.
"You have to be thoughtful when you enter a project like this. You don't want to design and build an aircraft where you know it's a one-off," says Tinseth. "That's not good for your customer, and it's not good for you. It's not good for the customer because one-offs tend to be difficult to work into the fleet, difficult to finance, and the residual value won't be very much."
Still, Tinseth sees applications for a long-range aircraft beyond just Australia. Such an aircraft would allow Middle Eastern carriers to operate to South America, and Southeast Asian carriers to fly more direct services to the USA.
"Ultra-long-range before was the 777-200LR," he adds. "It was a heavy, expensive airplane to fly. The 787-9 flies missions as short as 500 miles, and as long as Singapore to San Francisco. That's the difference between the widebodies of today and the widebodies of the past."
This story has been updated to correct an engine designation in the eighth paragraph