• GE9X to feature 16 blades, versus 18 on GEnx engines
  • Folding wingtip to be operated hydraulically
  • Folding wingtip to improve lift-to-drag by 12%
  • Folding wingtip 800lbs weight penalty, against 777-200’s 3,200lbs
  • 777X to remain ICAO Code E aircraft on aprons
  • 787-styled tail fin, elimination of overwing exit confirmed
  • Elimination of overwing exit saves 1,000lbs of weight
  • 787-styled larger dimmable windows, lower cabin altitude being studied
  • 777-8X & -9X range boosted to around 8,100nm
  • 777-8X to compete with A350-1000, banks on commonality advantages

Now that the development of the 787-10X has slowed owing to the worldwide grounding resulting from a fire onboard a parked Japan Airlines (JAL) 787’s lithium-ion battery in Boston Logan International Airport on January 7 and another smouldering one on an All Nippon Airways (ANA) flight on 16 January, the proposed highly fuel efficient A330-300 replacement may now be eclipsed by its bigger siblings, a major revamp to Boeing’s hot-selling long-haul twin-engine 777 family. As the upgraded big twin, dubbed the 777X, edges closer to obtaining authority to offer (ATO) from the Chicago-based plane-maker’s board of directors as early as its next meeting in April according to an Aviation Week report, a mini-jumbo war looms over the horizon with its arch-rival Toulouse, France-based Airbus offering its 350-seat A350-1000 aircraft.

“I think they are ready to go on that. I am hoping that within the next two or three weeks, we will engage with Boeing almost on a formal basis,” Emirates president Tim Clark was quoted as saying.

As the beleaguered 787 Dreamliner programme is currently squarely focused on returning the 50 delivered examples to commercial service, of which the game-changing aircraft’s three-layered permanent battery fix has enabled line number (LN) 83, an example destined for LOT Polish Airlines, to return to test flight this Monday which is due to perform a US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification flight later this week, the progress being shown on the 777X programme is in stark contrast to the relatively slow one at the 787-10X development effort.

For instance, Boeing has appointed Bob Feldmann as vice president (VP) and general manager (GM) of the 777X on 9th March, who is succeeded by Keith Leverkuhn on the re-engined 737 MAX narrowbody aircraft programme as vice president (VP) and general manager (GM), while General Electric’s (GE) proposed GE9X engine offering has been selected to be the sole-source engine supplier to the aircraft, extending an exclusivity contract the world’s largest engine manufacturer has had with Boeing since 1999.

“On the 777X, things are accelerating. The configuration is looking good. The big question is affordability and the business case, making it affordable for us to build and the airlines to buy,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) vice president (VP) of marketing Randy Tinseth said at the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) conference in mid-March.

Image Courtesy of Air New Zealand

Image Courtesy of Air New Zealand

777X looks to adopt more 787 features
A selection of the General Electric GE9X as the sole-source engine supplier of the 777X is a long-time coming, after Pratt & Whitney (P&W) pulled out from the competition this January. Pratt & Whitney (P&W) offered a scaled-up 100,000lbs version of its geared turbofan (GTF) engine featuring a groundbreaking fan-drive gear consisting of 7 moving parts with journal bearings that allows the engine fan to rotate at a speed 3 times slower than the low-pressure turbine (LPT), thus maximising propulsive efficiency.

For Rolls-Royce, while being dealt with a blow on the engine decision, the loss is arguably limited as the competitive landscape in the widebody engine market has in fact changed little with its exclusivity on the A350-1000 over its Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 engine and its virtual monopolistic position on the smaller -800 and -900 variants with Trent XWB-75 and -79 for the smallest shrunk variant and Trent XWB-84 for the baseline -900 variant.

“This decision simply maintains the existing situation in the widebody market in which we are the market leader with over 50% share. We are confident that the proposal we put forward was extremely competitive,” a Rolls-Royce spokesman asserted to Reuters.

Rolls-Royce offered a 337cm (132.5in) RB3025 engine that will slash the engine specific fuel consumption (SFC) by around 10% against the GE90-115B engine on the existing Boeing 777-300ER and provide 99,500lbs of thrust with a bypass ratio of 12:1 and an overall pressure ratio (OPR) of 60:1; while the GE9X will have a fan diameter of 131.5in and a third-generation twin-annual pre-mixing swirler (TAPS III) which will see the high pressure compressor ratio boosted from 23:1 to 27:1 and the overall pressure ratio to 61:1 from 42:1 and feature a 10.3:1 bypass ratio. The GE9X will have 16 blades compared to GEnx’s 18 blades while featuring improved fibre and resin system, which includes the use of ceramic matrix composite (CMC). These will make the GE9X having a 10% lower engine specific fuel consumption (SFC) than the GE90-115B engine.

The new core of the slightly more than 100,000lbs GE9X powering the 407-seat 777-9X will have its first test run as early as 2014 and a final design freeze known as “Toll Gate 6″ will take place in 2015 and its first engine to test (FETT) in 2016, flight tests aboard the engine-maker’s Boeing 747-400 flying testbed in 2017 and engine certification in May 2018, Aviation Week and flightglobal have reported.

In nailing down its engine choice and being very close to “Toll Gate 3″ authority to offer (ATO), Boeing has reached significant milestones in bringing the 777-9X to the market and upping the ante which is going to spark a new mini-jumbo war.

“This decision to work with GE going forward reflects the best match to the development programme, schedule and airplane performance. We are studying airplane improvements that will extend today’s 777 efficiencies and reliability for the next two decades or longer, and the engines are a significant part of that effort. Our focus is on providing the most competitive offering to our customers in the large twin aisle market,” Boeing 777X development vice president (VP) and general manager (GM) Bob Feldmann commented.

Meanwhile, the Boeing 777X looks to adopt more 787 features in ways more than one, starting from its signature supercritical carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) wings.

The 71.1m (233.4ft) “4th-generation” carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) wings are going to feature a folding wingtip on its outermost 11ft (3.35m) with a hydraulics actuator and a piano-type topside hinge. Two hinges will be located at where the front and rear wing spars meet the top wing cover and locking pins are going to be featured where the spars meet the lower wing cover. This design, Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources at Boeing say, remains very similar to a “major scaled-up” version of the CFRP replacement wings for the Northrop Grumman A-6E Intruder fighter jet in the 1980s with “no moveable parts” and excludes the ailerons, although there appears to be an “alternate design” lately. The hydraulics mechanism of the folding wingtip, the sources insist, is “so simple” and “proven” that there is unlikely to be any implications on maintenance cost, while claiming the folding wingtip is of an “acceptance issue”, not a technological one. The folding wing will be certified in the “folded-up” position, with the deflection of ailerons and spoilers easily compensating the imbalance of lift should a folding wingtip ever fail in flight.

This folding wingtip, along with a 787-styled wing, is going to enable Boeing to achieve a 12% improvement in lift-to-drag (L/D) ratio with a minimal weight penalty at 800lbs (362.8kg), compared to the 3,200lbs (1.45 tonnes) weight penalty associated with the original folding wingtip design studied on the 777-200, while adding 30m² (322.9ft²) wing area added to the 777-300ER’s one of 436.8m² (“Boeing 777X & 787-10X unfazed by 787 battery woes“, 14th Feb, 13).

A noteworthy point is, while there have been suggestions that the 777X does not require a folding wingtip at all recently citing the preparations airports around the world have already made for International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Code F aircraft such as the Airbus A380 superjumbo and Boeing 747-8I Intercontinental, which includes airplanes with a wingspan between 65m (213.3ft) and 80m (262.5ft) whereas the ICAO Code E category to which today’s 777-300ER belongs includes those planes with wingspans between 52m (170.6ft) and 65m (213.3ft), the folding wingtip design is deemed as “central” to the 777X’s business case in Boeing’s view, Aspire Aviation‘s sources at the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer say.

Serving a large number of airports, including those smaller ones served by the 777-300ERs such as Seattle Tacoma International Airport, Glasgow and Newcastle in the United Kingdom, Dublin airport in Ireland is crucial to maintaining the appeal of the 777X and that while airports have widened taxiways and added A380-compatible gates such as Dubai International’s dedicated A380 terminal at Terminal 3 with 20 gates, the expected large number of 777X at airports such as Los Angeles International Airport’s Tom Bradley International Terminal and Hong Kong International Airport where there are 9 and 5 A380-compatible gates, respectively, will render the accommodation of numerous Code F 777X aircraft, rather than a Code E one, relatively difficult.

As it currently stands, the 777-9X and -8X will have the same wingspan as today’s 777-300ER and -200LR at 64.8m (212.7ft) and be categorised as Code E aircraft on the tarmac and taxiways while becoming a Code F aircraft once it is on the runway.

Besides the 787-styled wing, however, several 787 features being studied may ultimately find their ways onto the 777X subtly.

Among the likely features being sold to airlines’ 2 customer working groups, which feature Dubai-based Emirates Airline, International Airlines Group (IAG) subsidiary British Airways (BA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) and more, one to be held in June and another in October or November, are 787-styled displays in the cockpit featuring large liquid crystal display (LCD) panels and an electro-chromatic dimmable windows identical to those featured on the 787 Dreamliner.

Other features being borrowed from the 787 include larger windows and a lower cabin altitude, although these concepts appear to be at an earlier stage than the 787-styled cockpit displays and internal widening by a thinner cabin wall to accommodate a 10-abreast cabin configuration more comfortably.

“We think there’re ways to provide more space and a bigger cabin for the customer without changing the outside dimensions of the airplane. We’re looking for a more comfortable 10-abreast,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) vice president (VP) in marketing Randy Tinseth said on the sidelines of the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) conference in March.

On the other hand, while the fuselage material choice remains wide open in selecting either the traditional aluminium or 3rd-generation aluminium-lithium for the 777X, Aspire Aviation believes choosing Alcoa’s 3rd-generation aluminium-lithium that will reduce weight by 12% and 6% reduction in skin friction is pivotal to providing a larger window size and lowering the cabin altitude despite the higher cost involved.

Crucially, 3rd-generation aluminium-lithium technology is a proven and mature one that is readily available today, such as Alcoa’s Al-Li 2060-T8E30 product has an around 16.7% higher specific strength than the Al 2524-T3 used on today’s 777 to around 175 MPa/(gm/cm³) from its predecessor’s 150 MPa/(gm/cm³), with a higher stretch formability. Moreover, choosing the aluminium-lithium for the 777X will require no change in production tooling but only a change in coating, a misconception disproved by Spirit AeroSystems’ 737 rear fuselage panel using the Al-Li 2060 material with existing production tooling.

Besides, an artist’s rendering of the 777-9X recently released by Boeing shows a 787-styled vertical stabiliser in addition to featuring 4 Type A doors, thereby confirming Aspire Aviation‘s previous report that eliminating the overwing exit will save 1,000lbs (453.6kg) while stretching the separation between the exit doors to a maximum of 60ft (“Boeing chooses largest wingspan for 777X“, 26th Jul, 12).

Al-Li evolution

Al-Li comparison

Al-Li Spirit AeroSystems demonstrator

A350-1000 competition: Will the market move on?
These innovative features adopted from the 787 Dreamliner will, when combined, make the 76.48m long 407-seat 777-9X an unparalleled aircraft with an unbeatable seat-mile costs in the 350-400 seat segment, while burning 21% less fuel per seat and having a 16% lower cash operating cost (COC) than the 365-seat Boeing 777-300ER.

With a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 344,000kg, the 777-9X is going to create a new niche in the marketplace. It also symbolises Boeing’s belief that sustained growth in long-haul international traffic will lead to the market moving onto a new niche which is a notch above today’s 350-seat segment while a notch below the very large airplane (VLA) segment such as its 467-seat Boeing 747-8I Intercontinental.

This big bet could make or break the success of the 777-9X, which increasingly looks similar to a one-to-one replacement for the ageing global fuel guzzling 416-seat 747-400 fleet while offering growth opportunities for airlines by up-gauging modestly from the 777-300ER without compromising either flight frequency, a criterion underpinning premium airlines’ business model, nor the capability of carrying a large amount of underbelly revenue cargo.

The stakes are high – long-haul traffic is forecast to grow by 5.2% a year over the next 20 years, representing 7,950 twin-aisle airplanes at US$2.1 trillion that will be contested by both the Airbus A350 XWB (Extra Wide Body) aircraft family, the 787 and the 777X families.

In particular, the market which both of the A350-1000 and 777-300ER are in, is highly lucrative, with the 777-300ER variant accounting for 152 of 202 orders in the best-ever year for the 777 programme in 2011, when Emirates announced an additional order for 50 777-300ERs. In 2012, the 777-300ER accounted for 73 out of 75 sales of the long-haul big-twin and it has won an order for 10 777-300ERs from Air Lease Corporation (ALC) and 1 from American Airlines (AA) this year. Since its launch in February 2000 as yet another “777X” back then, the 777-300ER has racked up 687 orders with 303 unfilled orders at press time.

In response, Airbus redesigned its 350-seat A350-1000 with a larger engine core producing 97,000lbs of thrust instead of the 93,000lbs originally envisaged, a larger wing and a higher maximum take-off weight (MTOW) from 298 tonnes to 308 tonnes which saw its range being increased to 8,400nm (nautical miles) while boasting a 25% fuel saving over the 365-seat 777-300ER with 53% of its airframe being carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP). Entry into service (EIS), however, was postponed to 2017 from 2015 as a result.

The European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. (EADS) wholly-owned subsidiary is also mulling a second final assembly line (FAL) to boost the A350-1000 output specifically in order to satisfy anticipated customer demand, declaring that it now expects to garner 70-80 A350-1000 sales per year versus the 40-50 previously assumed. The A350-1000 has won significant customer endorsements recently, first from Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways ordering 24 A350-1000s, then Qatar Airways switching 20 A350-800 orders for 3 additional A350-900s and 17 additional A350-1000s of which the latter has boosted its order total for the largest A350 XWB variant to 37, and Air Lease Corporation (ALC) ordering 5 A350-1000s this February.

“I would like to believe that sometime this year we’ll be able to make a decision to do that,” Airbus chief operating officer (COO) customers John Leahy said in a Bloomberg interview.

Interestingly, initially the business case of the 353-seat 777-8X is thought to be considerably less robust than that of the -9X, with the lower-end segment below the 7,100nm range being cannibalised and undermined by the proposed 323-seat 787-10X aircraft (“Launch of Boeing 787-10X has implications on 777X“, 22nd Oct, 12). However, Aspire Aviation understands that Boeing is now going to utilise the 777-8X to compete head-to-head with the A350-1000 while its 777-9X will reflect shifting market dynamics and create a new market in its own.

The 69.55m long 353-seat 777-8X is going to be powered by a derated around 90,000lbs General Electric GE9X engine and has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 315,000kg, which will have an around 14-16% lower block fuel burn per seat absent the higher seat count on its bigger sibling that shaved 5% off the block fuel burn per seat measure alone.

Make no mistake, while the 777-8X will have a considerably heavier airframe and hence structural weight and that the Airbus A350-1000 is going to have the lowest block fuel burn per seat on 350-seaters, the 777-8X nonetheless has a higher maximum take-off weight (MTOW) at 315t against the A350-1000’s 308t providing more uplift and carrying more passengers and revenue cargoes despite its shorter range along with the 777-9X at 8,100nm (nautical miles), upped from 8,000nm recently, according to Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources at the Chicago-based airframer.

Despite a higher block fuel burn per seat, one advantage the 777-8X holds over the A350-1000 is commonality among its family members, as the 777-8X shares the same carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) wing with the -9X of a wing area of 466.8m² compared to the 777-300ER’s 436.8m², whereas the A350-1000’s wing area is 4% larger than that of -800 and -900 at 460.7m² against the smaller variants’ 443m² through an extension of trailing edges and high-lift devices. In addition, Boeing contends that each A350 variant is now an individually optimised platform, which will lead to a lower commonality across the variants, especially after adopting a larger engine core notwithstanding the 80% commonality in line replaceable unit (LRU) between Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 and XWB-84, XWB-79 which will inevitably push up maintenance cost.

A350-900

A350-1000

777-300ER

777-8X

777-9X

3-class pax no.

314

350

365

353

407

Range (nm)

8,100

8,400

7,825

8,100

8,100

MTOW (kg)

268,000

308,000

351,530

315,000

344,000

MLW (kg)

205,000

233,000

251,290

n/a

n/a

MZFW (kg)

192,000

220,000

237,683

n/a

n/a

MEW/MWE (kg)

115,700

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

OEW (kg)

n/a

n/a

167,829

n/a

n/a

Overall length (m)

66.89

73.88

73.9

69.55

76.48

Wingspan (m)

64.75

64.75

64.8

71.1

71.1

Diameter (m)

5.96

5.96

6.19

6.19

6.19

Cabin Width (m)

5.61

5.61

5.86

n/a

n/a

Engines

Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-84

Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97

General Electric GE90-115B

General Electric GE9X

General Electric GE9X

Thrust (lbs)

84,000

97,000

115,300

~90,000

~100,000

Sources: Airbus, Boeing, Aspire Aviation estimates

With the Asia/Pacific region driving future growth, in which traffic, measured in terms of revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs), for the region is expected to grow by 6.4% annually, outpacing the expected fleet size growth of 5.5% per year, that implies the average number of seats per airplane is going to grow, according to Boeing’s latest 2012-2031 current market outlook (CMO) forecast.

This trend is already becoming more pronounced, with airlines worldwide reporting a 1% increase in the number of flights leading to a 3% increase in seats in March 2013 year-over-year, according to an OAG Facts report. Airbus also predicted in its global market forecast (GMF) 2012 that between 2012 and 2031 passenger traffic will grow by 150% from 5.1 trillion revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) to 12.8 trillion RPKs whereas passenger aircraft fleet will only grow by 109% during the same period.

This will bode well for the business case of the 777-9X, which will build on the strong customer base the 777-300ER already has, and be particularly attractive for airlines seeking a direct 747-400 replacement and those who seek to tap into the growing markets of the Asia/Pacific and Latin America regions such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil.

Customers are already clamouring for the 777-9X, with Dubai-based Emirates Airline operating 86 Boeing 777-300ERs as of end-January and has another 66 on backlog at press time. By the time the 777-9X enters into service in mid-2019, Emirates says it will have some 40 examples to be phased out.

“If you look at the total number, it is 175 that have got to go out. Boeing is looking at a long delivery stream of [777] replacements. But by the time it comes to market there will be 40 or 50 Emirates aircraft which will have been [ready for retirement], so they are obviously identifying that as an initial order,” Emirates president Tim Clark said in Reuters interview.

International Airlines Group (IAG) subsidiary British Airways (BA) is also enthusiastic about a potential 777-9X order, given its 12 Airbus A380s will not be sufficient to replace all of its ageing 54 fuel-guzzling Boeing 747-400 fleet, which would entail the having 777-9X replacing around 30 747-400s.

“Based on what I have seen, it is almost inevitable that it is an aircraft that we will have in our fleet at some stage. It looks like a perfect fit for some of what British Airways (BA) would require. We don’t have an immediate issue, but given the delivery timeframes, we are not looking to delay [the decision],” International Airlines Group (IAG) chief executive Willie Walsh told Aviation Week.

“We have been in detailed discussions with both manufacturers and the engine suppliers in recent months, and we have as much visibility at this stage about what options are available to us as we are likely to get,” Walsh commented.

In the meantime, Japan Airlines (JAL) is reported to be studying an order for 20 A350-1000s, despite being an active participant in the 777X customer working group and operating 13 Boeing 777-300ERs, while Philippine Airlines is eyeing an order for 20 777-9Xs.

“It depends on the price. We are looking at the new Boeing 777X. We may buy 10 and, if it performs well, we’ll exercise an option for 10 more. That’s larger, can carry 400 passengers with longer range. The new 777, they call it X because it’s lightweight, has bigger wings, newer engine,” Philippine Airlines president Ramon Ang was quoted by Reuters as saying.

While such a Japan Airlines (JAL) order would be a significant endorsement for the A350-1000 and a severe blow to Boeing, Aspire Aviation thinks it makes more sense for JAL to operate both the 353-seat 777-8X and the 407-seat 777-9X in light of commonality consideration, which reduces maintenance and training costs, as well as securing Japanese suppliers’ work share on the upcoming 777X. Indeed, the need for diversifying its supplier base to include Airbus in its fleet is highlighted by the recent 787 groundings, but the marginal benefit of operating such a small fleet of A350-1000s remains questionable given the significant investment required to train and switch its allegiance to Airbus.

Other potential 777X operators include Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways, which will eventually has a 50 unit strong 777-300ER fleet and a 26 unit A350-1000 fleet alongside 22 A350-900s as Asia’s largest international carrier pursues growth in the key China market and North American market.

A closer look at today’s 777-300ER order book reveals how bright the market potential of the 777-9X is, with Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) having 19 777-300ERs in its fleet, American Airlines (AA) 20, Etihad Airways 18, Eva Air 18, General Electric Capital Aviation Service (GECAS) 47, International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC) 28, Singapore Airlines (SIA) 27, just to name a few. It would fit into Air China’s fleet ideally, which has ordered 2 additional 747-8I Intercontinentals this month in addition to the original order for 5 examples.

Separately, Pratt & Whitney (P&W) is reportedly looking to build a 100,000lbs geared turbofan (GTF) engine for the A350-800s and -900s, which will challenge Rolls-Royce on the aircraft and enable the A350 to have the potential to reap the benefits from a technological breakthrough.

“As Pratt & Whitney looks ahead to powering future widebody applications, we will scale the geared turbofan architecture to the required thrust levels. We continue to keep all airframers informed of our progress on the PW1000G family, including studies with Airbus for potential widebody applications,” a Pratt & Whitney (P&W) company spokesman was quoted as saying.

“One should not walk away saying Pratt has focused on being only a single-aisle manufacturer. We are heavily investing in technology for the widebody thrust class and we continue to be very positive on taking a geared turbofan architecture up to 100,000 pounds of thrust,” Pratt & Whitney (P&W) vice president (VP), next generation product family Bob Saia said.

“The decision that we made on the 777X is that it didn’t meet our base criteria for us to be able to go forward and be able to submit a proposal. That’s not to say that if something changed, or if another widebody application were to come up with the right timing, that Pratt would take the same position,” Saia explained.

Though Aspire Aviation thinks it is too little, too late for Pratt & Whitney to break into Rolls-Royce’s stranglehold on every A350-800, -900 orders as well as its exclusivity on the -1000 variant, since it would be considerably easier for airlines to maintain a common engine supplier across different members of an aircraft family to save maintenance cost by maintaining a common spool of spare parts, let alone its financial resources would be strained by the development of a series of narrowbody GTF engines, including the PW1700G and PW1900G designed for Embraer’s re-engined and re-winged second-generation E-Jets.

Airbus A350-1000 Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-94

777-9X undermines VLAs’ business cases
One might wonder whether or not with the growth in the number of seats outpacing the growth in the number of flights, as well as Airbus’ forecast that the number of aviation mega-cities will grow from 42 in 2011 to 92 by 2031 where 95% of long-haul traffic will pass through, that ordering the Airbus A380 superjumbo or 747-8I Intercontinental would make commercial sense.

However, Aspire Aviation firmly believes that the 777-9X will invariably undermine the business cases of both the Airbus A380 and 747-8I Intercontinental and operating such a type will bring several significant benefits to airlines.

First of all, very large airplanes (VLAs) are arguably more susceptible to uncertainties and volatility, more than aircraft of other sizes, thereby carrying significantly higher risks. Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) A380 Suite was reported to have been suffering from poor loads during the 2007-2009 global financial crisis which prompted the carrier to heavily discount its fares, thus diluting yields.

Worse yet, the fact that airlines are making their A380s the flagship of their fleets, by adopting a comfortable configuration such as Korean Air’s 407-seat configuration, the lowest of any A380 seat count and equipped with an all-business class upper deck that is also found on Singapore Airlines’ 409-seat A380s and SIA’s 471-seat A380s and British Airways’ 469-seat ones, may have inadvertently lowered the cost per available seat kilometre (CASK) unit cost advantage that a 525-seat A380s would otherwise hold, since CASK generally decreases as the seat count increases.

Coupled with the discounting involved in order to fill the A380 should seasonal, economic and other factors affect the demand for a particular flight adversely, this will lead to a higher break-even load factor (BELF) as BELF = cost per available seat kilometre (CASK) / yield, of which the yield is defined as revenue per revenue passenger kilometre (RPK).

“We don’t need to make a decision about [our 6 A380 orders] now, it very much depends on the state of the global economy and the oil price. It’s a lovely quiet aircraft but it’s very big and you need to operate it on some very big trunks and you need to have a big enough fleet – we always knew we’d have a small fleet and is that fleet too small? And that is a challenge for Virgin Atlantic but it’s not something we need to worry about right now,” then Virgin Atlantic chief executive Steve Ridgeway said in an Airline Business interview.

Next, the flexibility that the 407-seat 777-9X offers is unmatchable by its VLA peers, especially for carriers based on a frequency business model such as Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific. Airbus countered that examples shown by Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Air France have demonstrated the A380 can save airlines dollars by, in SIA’s case, substituting 10 278-seat Boeing 777-300ER flights per week on the Singapore-Paris Charles de Gaulle airport route for 7 471-seat A380 flights per week will lead to a 3% lower cash operating cost (COC) per week and a 21% lower COC per seat, thereby saving US$7.9 million a year while offering 27,000 additional seats. Similarly, the example with Air France showed a saving of 18% in COC by substituting 1 777-200ER and 1 A340-300 flights with an A380 flight on the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport-New York John F. Kennedy airport route.

Such a saving, proponents of the superjumbo argue, could be made on Cathay Pacific’s 5 daily flights to London Heathrow, where a pair of 2 flights, CX255 and CX251, depart 1 hour after each other and another pair of 2 flights, CX239 and CX237, depart in 20 minutes of each other.

Yet such an analysis conveniently ignores the revenue foregone in spillover demand, where price-inelastic last-minute walk-up business travellers pay the full face value of the airfares, i.e. at a premium, as economic theories state that closer the actual departure time to the preferred departure time, the more likely it is a carrier is able to command a premium and convert potential demand into actual demand. This takes place on the Hong Kong-Sydney route, where Cathay Pacific offers 4 daily flights while Qantas has trimmed its flights from twice-daily to single-daily, Hong Kong-New York John F. Kennedy where Cathay Pacific flies 3 daily non-stop flights while its closet competitor United Airlines flies single-daily to Newark. Other examples include its Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver routes, just to name a few.

Furthermore, the 777-9X is going to offer unprecedented revenue cargo volume, the sellable remaining cargo space after fully loading passengers’ luggage where profit margin could be as high as 60%-70% as fixed costs are shared with the passengers. Today’s 777-300ER already offers superior revenue cargo volume of 5,200ft³ out of a total cargo volume of 7,120ft³, compared to the 747-8I Intercontinental’s revenue cargo volume of 3,895ft³ out of a total cargo volume of 6,345ft³, whereas the A380 has the smallest revenue cargo volume of 2,995ft³ from a total cargo volume of 5,875ft³. This is crucial as Cathay Pacific carries 70% of its cargo in the underbellies of passenger aircraft.

Therefore, it is not inconceivable that the 777-9X is going to put further pressure on both the A380 and 747-8I to further improve their performance since the 777-9X strikes the “sweet spot” between growth opportunities, revenue cargo-carrying capability, frequency in one fell swoop with a better seat-mile costs than the 747-8I or even the A380 while minimising the risks of having to dilute its yields to fill up its aircraft and the substantial macroeconomic risks.

In conclusion, the 777X has made significant progress lately with its business case strengthening continuously. The 777-8X will take on the A350-1000 fiercely with an advantage in commonality and having a common wing and engine core with its bigger sibling despite the latter will nevertheless be the most fuel efficient 350-seat aircraft. Yet Boeing is betting on a market shift where the 407-seat 777-9X will be the new norm satisfying the growing needs of airlines to carry more passengers and cargoes over a longer distance at 8,100nm using 21% less fuel. With a strong customer base and 787-styled features such as 787-styled large displays cockpit, larger dimmable windows and a lower cabin altitude, the 777-9X is going to lure airlines with growth potential, minimised risks and maximised profits – and magnificence that features a novelty folding wingtip.

As of this writing, the roll-out of the 777-9X is scheduled to take place in the fourth quarter of 2017, followed by a 9-month flight test programme which ends in late third-quarter 2018 and an entry into service (EIS) in mid-2019. The service entry of the 777-8X is being envisaged in 2021-22, while the 9,480nm 777-8LX is still of a low priority at this point.

“We have had strong and productive engagement with a broad set of customers in the marketplace to understand their future needs. We are pleased with where we are in the process. We are aggressively moving forward on our plan and will continue to refine requirements with customers,” Boeing 777X development vice president (VP) and general manager (GM) Bob Feldmann said.

With an imminent authority to offer (ATO) on the 777X, now the race is officially on – both with the 787-10X on launch timing and the A350-1000. Only time can tell if the market will move on or not.

Image Courtesy of Boeing

Image Courtesy of Boeing

17 Comments

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  • keesje 2013 Mar 29 / 02:52

    Nice analyses, lots of observations.

    Cargo revenue volume can be a bit misleading on long flights. It doesn’t substitute payload.

    E.g. On HKG-LAX a 520 seat A380 can carry 50% more cargo then a 300 seat 777-300ER despite have less revenue cargo volume.

    And the -8i will have significantly less powerfull engines then the 777-300ER. Lower fuel burn will enhanced availabe payload, but the lower available thrust doesn’t. Compare it to the old non-ER 777-300; superior revenue cargo volume.. but not on the Pacific.

    By the time this enhanced 777 enters service, Airbus will have enhanced the A380 too. E.g. adding more efficient / higher powered engines and/or a stretch.

    • Eric Sees 2013 Mar 31 / 05:55

      It’s intriguing that A380 proponents believe the next version (stretch or otherwise) is going to fix the lack of revenue cargo volume. Wouldn’t a stretch simply equal more seats on the two main decks and therefore more baggage containers in the bellies? The only way to remedy this problem is to reduce seat density or move crew rest areas from the bellies onto the main decks, effectively doing the same.

      Similarly, the A380 will never be a mainstay for airlines looking to offer frequency. There are but a handful of markets worldwide that can support more than one A380 per day. Of those that can support an A380, what happens when the next global crisis strikes and the demand no longer exists on that scale? The airline has to move away from daily service rather than simply cut a frequency. That is notably bad news for hubs trying to produce synergies across a network.

      CX has got it right. Stay agile, diversify revenue flows, and support the network through hub connectivity. Keep the service level high, but don’t try to “keep up with the Jones” by chasing airlines with gold plated suites. Don’t pursue growth for the sake of growth. Make money by competing for high yields as much as possible and serve the other markets with the remaining capacity.

  • Muhammad Kaloo 2013 Apr 01 / 23:46

    I agree 100% with Eric Sees. Brilliant reply. I really like and appreciate Keesje’s knowledge about the nitty gritty stuff.

    Regarding the 777X, I believe:
    – the interior really needs to be widened so that the plane can appeal to more airlines (in 10-abreast form which will be the most efficient)
    – more sound insulation will be needed since many feel that the 777 is a noisy aircraft
    – in my opinion, the folding wing tip is inevitable to achieve the lift and related efficiency required and to keep it within Code E classification
    – IT NEEDS TO ENTER SERVICE ON TIME, BOEING!

    A bit off topic but – Boeing really messed up with the 787. The legacy of the train wreck that is the 787 (even though it is a magnificent, game-changing aircraft) will live on. Had it not been for that Boeing may have been able to build a clean-sheet aircraft to replace the 777. However, it is far too late for that so I wish them luck and success with this programme.

  • keesje 2013 Apr 02 / 15:18

    It seems the mini-jumbo war has already started before the 777X is launched.

    Big 777 users like CX, SQ, UA have comitted to the A350, now JAL and BA seem to have decided to go for the A350-1000.

    I think a clue might be to realize many airlines will not put 10 abreast seats in a new 777 on very long flights. It doesn’t meet industry benchmarks set by 9 abreast 777s, 10 abreast A380s and 8 abreast A330s and A340s. In that case the 9i is not 407 seats and only 3 meters/ seatrows longer then the the A350-1000. Airlines use their own seatspecs, not ambitious OEM seatcounts.

  • Muhammad Kaloo 2013 Apr 02 / 15:41

    I agree 100% with your statements Keesje! Haha. Why do I keep agreeing with everyone? Passenger comfort, even in economy class, should be a major consideration for any airline.

    It appears that the 777X will either work for an airline or not. The question is – will it work for enough airlines for it to make sense for Boeing to produce it in its current form/concept?

    The A350-1000 will most definitely receive many more orders from now on – and rightfully so – it is an amazing aircraft. Once many airlines commit to the A350-1000, will there be enough demand for the 777X from anyone other than Emirates?

    Th other thing is, if the 777X offers undeniable and unbelievable efficiency in 10-abreast configuration, will it be logical for airlines to still ignore it in that configuration?

    I personally am very on the fence with the 777X at the moment. However, I do hope Boeing can make it work for their sake…

  • Scratch 2013 Apr 03 / 09:13

    Great analysis Daniel with some interesting follow up comments. The one area I wish the entire industry would avoid is the seat count games. Both producers and their pundits are guilty of muddy-ing the waters with seat count numbers. Why can’t we simply state the numbers in terms of the aircraft floor area?

    To make my point, some carriers, like CX, might prefer 10 abreast in 777 EY to push passengers into PEY. So I believe it is highly prejudicial to make assumptions about minutiae on seating configurations. I’ve heard criticism of 9 abreast on A350 because it is slightly narrower than a 777. This is an equally ridiculous criticism. Let the airlines do what they do which is most often offer configurations which are far lesser than manufacturer seat numbers. Give me one good reason why we cannot do this?

  • keesje 2013 Apr 03 / 17:09

    Seat counts, and more specific per seat costs calculations are a marketing mans best friends.

    Some OEMS even use First class at 60 inch and Business class at 40 inch to boost seatcounts, do per seat comparisons with the other guy using 80 and 60 inch for the same classes. And get away with it. Famous example is the 747-8i vs the A380; 469 vs 525 seats while second one has 35% more space. Then make a CASM comparison..

    Back to topic in the table above the 777-9 has 2.6 meters more cabin the the 777-300ER. Still it has 42 more seats. Hows that possible ;) Also the -9 seems a bit underpowered for its MTOW..

  • Muhammad Kaloo 2013 Apr 03 / 17:25

    Very, very true statements, Scratch and Keesje. I always look at the manufacturers seat counts with 50-75 seats knocked off their count. For example:
    A333: 300 =225-250
    A359: 314 = 239-264
    A35J: 350 = 275-300
    A388: 525 = 450-475 (however, this airraft tends to be the exception ie: AF, LH)
    B789: 280 = 205-230
    B7810: 323 = 248-273
    B77W: 365 = 290-315
    386 = 311-336
    B748: 467 = 392-417 (however, this aircraft tends to be the exception since the OEM count seems highly overstated…)

  • Muhammad Kaloo 2013 Apr 03 / 17:27

    EDIT

    B778X: 353 = 278-303
    B779X: 407 = 332-357

  • Scratch 2013 Apr 04 / 08:00

    keesje,

    I would not underestimate the ability of the new 777X wing to compensate for the reduced thrust from GE9X engines. The 747-8 GEnx-2b engines have only a few percent greater thrust than those found on the -400, but the -8 takes off at a MTOW 13% greater than the -400 due to drastically increased lift. Another few percent on the 747-8 MTOW can be had for a price from Boeing. Granted, this dynamic will be different on a big twin compared to the quad for engine inoperative performance calculations.

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  • Keith Lobo 2013 Apr 21 / 03:06

    Still struggling to see what the case is for the 777-8X. I don’t get why Boeing wouldn’t pursue a two-plane strategy very similar to 77W/77L. Why not 777-9X/8LX? What exactly does the 777-8X offer, other than a family approach that would compel an airline to order it? Any airline large enough to fly the 777-9X isn’t likely to be all that worried about family commonality. On the other hand the 777-8LX may come with the ability to fly 8000nm with a full load. Just think how value that would be for certain airlines (with budding cargo businesses):

    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?R=8000nm%40dxb

    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?R=8000nm%40ist&MS=wls&DU=nm&SG=0.84&SU=mach

    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?R=8000nm%40hkg&MS=wls&DU=nm&SG=0.84&SU=mach

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