It is not very often that we see a new widebody aircraft introduced (the last was the Airbus A350, entering service in 2015). The next new aircraft is well on its way now from Boeing. Technically a variant of the Boeing 777 – but introducing a lot of new features – the Boeing 777X could be a game-changer for long-haul aviation. It is currently in testing, with delivery repeatedly delayed. It is now likely to enter service in 2025.
TIME TO UPDATE THE BOEING 777
The Boeing 777 has been the best-selling widebody aircraft to date. It was developed in the 1990s though and entered service in 1995 – over 25 years ago. There have been many new improvements since then that a new model could take advantage of. Even more significantly, there was a clear need in the market for a higher-capacity twin-engine widebody. The Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 are now well on the decline. Production of both types has ended, and airlines are looking to replace them.
This was the background with which Boeing set out to develop the 777X. It wanted to build on the design and success of the 777. It would increase capacity to offer a replacement option for the Boeing 747, but do so with a focus on efficiency – and, of course, with two engines not four.
The new 777X program was launched by Boeing in 2013. The first prototype aircraft took the skies in 2020, and there are now four aircraft built and taking part in an extensive testing program.
TWO DIFFERENT SIZE OPTIONS
Boeing offers the 777X in two different models. The smaller 777-8 will have a typical capacity of 384 passengers, and the larger 777-9 (with the fuselage stretched around a further 7 metres) will take this up to 426 passengers. The 777-8 will also be developed in a freighter version, the 777-8F. There were originally plans for a third further stretched variant with an increased capacity of up to 450 passengers, but this is not yet planned.
The 777-9 will be the first to launch (and is the only one so far built for testing). The 777-9 is the longest commercial aircraft ever developed – beating the 747-8 by just under half a metre. The Airbus A380 though will retain the record for largest aircraft by capacity, volume, and weight.
A MAJOR FOCUS ON EFFICIENCY
The 777X achieves its size and capacity while still promising the next step in efficiency improvements. We will have to wait until it is operational to really understand the differences in operating. Boeing claims that it will offer 10% lower emissions, and overall, up to 10% lower operating costs than the competition.
There are many aerodynamic and design improvements that are feeding into its efficiency. Two major changes stand out, however.
Firstly, its new GE9X engines are the largest yet built for a commercial jet. They are larger than the fuselage of a Boeing 737! However, they are not the heaviest. A new design, principally using composite materials and fewer fan blades, makes them lighter than the previous Boeing 777 engines.
Secondly, it has newly designed folding wingtips. This allows for a longer wingspan in air (a major efficiency gain), but shorter wings for ground handling, This was a problem with the A380, where its fixed large wingspan limited the number of airports able to handle it.
ORDERS AND DELIVERIES
There has been strong interest in the Boeing 777X, with 394 aircraft orders made so far (according to Boeing). This includes British Airways, Lufthansa, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, ANA, Cathay Pacific, and Singapore Airlines. For freighter orders, Qatar Airways takes the lead, becoming the launch customer only in early 2022 with a commitment for up to 50 aircraft.
Although the 777X test program is well underway, there have been repeated delays. There were initial delays with the new GE9X engines, and then further problems during pressure testing of the airframe on the ground. These are now resolved, but the initial delivery expectation has shifted to 2025 (at the outset, it was hoped to enter service in 2019).
Emirates is likely most upset about the delays. It has 156 777X aircraft on order, forming a key part of its strategy to replace its massive fleet of Airbus A380s.
The upcoming Boeing 777X promises a lot for airlines. It demonstrates well the direction the industry is heading with its largest aircraft. There is still demand for a high capacity widebody, but the focus has shifted to efficiency rather than capacity. Entry into service may be delayed, but with so many aircraft on order we will soon see it operating as a major part of many airline’s fleets.