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Boeing’s widebody dominance hinges on 777X success

  • 787-9’s HLFC reduces overall drag by 0.5%
  • “Software logic glitch” behind 787-9’s main landing gear door cycling on 1st flight
  • GE9X thrust increased to 105,000lbs, eyeing 108,000lbs
  • GE9X water injection increases mass airflow & decreases HPC temperature
  • GE9X water injection system carries weight & maintenance cost penalties
  • Boeing 777X to have Al fuselage
  • 777X CFRP wing likely to be built in Charleston due to costs: sources
  • 2nd A350 FAL & further A350-1000 stretch biggest threats to 777X
  • A350-1000 still requires significant design tweaks: sources
  • A350-800 yet to secure board approval to begin industrialisation process

It was ironical that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which the Chicago-based plane-maker touted as “Made With Japan”, would become the fracture point of Boeing’s iron grip on Japan where it holds a 80% market share as the island nation’s carriers started purchasing Boeing aircraft in the 1980s as a means to remedy the significant current account surplus its government has with its transpacific ally.

Coupled with the wide industrial footprint Boeing has in Japan, whose first-tier suppliers build 21% of the 777, including the centre wing box by Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) the rear pressure bulkhead, part of the forward section and the entire mid-section, as well as the 35% work share on the 787 with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) building “soul of the aircraft” – its carbon fibre wing, Japan seems to be a formidable fortress for Boeing.

That cozy relationship first started to change when the lithium cobalt-dioxide battery on a Japan Airlines (JAL) Boeing 787 Dreamliner overheated and spewed electrolytes at Boston Logan International Airport on 7 January and another also overheated on an All Nippon Airways (ANA) 787 flight on 16 January, prompting a 3-month long worldwide grounding. Since the aircraft returned to the skies in late April following a battery redesign that entails a 3-layered solution (“Boeing 787 is a dream come true, again.“, 26th Apr, 13), including a steel case that can withstand an explosion, a titanium tube connected to the exterior of the fuselage and improved insulation, it has been perennially plagued by a string of incidents, not to mention the July 12th blaze on a parked Ethiopian Airlines 787 at London Heathrow owing to wiring flaws with the Honeywell International-built emergency locator transmitter (ELT).

These, along with Boeing’s attitude, became the final straw that broke the camel’s back, an insider at Boeing told Aspire Aviation, when the former Japanese flag carrier placed a landmark US$9.5 billion order for 18 A350-900s and 13 A350-1000s plus 25 options on 7th October. Early delivery slots with first delivery in 2019, which Boeing is not able to match with the 777X, also played a crucial role behind JAL’s defection.

“[The order is] totally about timing. Boeing would have been too late,” Japan Airlines president Yoshiharu Ueki contended.

“It was a private decision made by a private company, and the government has absolutely no connection to it. The various airline companies make their decisions on what to buy based on their own management situations.” Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a Reuters interview.

While the Boeing 777-9X remains the frontrunner at its arch-rival ANA Holdings Inc.’s race to replace around 30 ageing 777s, JAL’s order has nevertheless enabled Airbus to make significant inroads and punch above its weight as it targets a doubling in market share in Japan from 13% currently to 25% in 2020, before doubling that again to 50% by 2050, Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier said.

Image Courtesy of Lufthansa

Image Courtesy of Lufthansa

Tale of two tails
JAL’s defection comes amid the solid progress the US$15 billion A350 XWB (Extra Wide Body) aircraft programme is making, as the second A350-900 test example, manufacturer’s serial number MSN003 completed its 5-hour first flight on 14th October which subsequently logged 25 flight hours on 3 test flights while its sibling MSN001, which first flew on June 14th, has now logged 378 flight hours on 77 flights.

The A350-900 has also completed its velocity minimum unstick (Vmu) test, the lowest speed at which an airplane would still lift into the air despite a tail strike, in addition to maximum and minimum speed tests, while flutter tests will begin imminently on MSN001 and natural icing tests will also take place before the end of the year.

The third example ever to fly, MSN002 and also the first one featuring a cabin, is currently undergoing final assembly with painting poised to take place by end-2013 before its first flight in February 2014, when MSN004 will also fly for the first time, whereas the last test example MSN005 will fly in May.

The smooth sailing of the A350 so far, although it still faces the “unknown unknowns” in the 2,500 hours long flight test programme over the next 12 months, has emboldened Airbus to set early-September 2014 as the entry into service (EIS) target, according to an Aviation Week report.

Moreover, Airbus will now seek certification of lithium-ion battery on the A350 one year into service from MSN020 onwards, with MSN005 and the first batch of A350s to be delivered incorporating the heavier but proven nickel-cadmium battery.

“We didn’t seek initial certification for the A350 with lithium because we didn’t want to take any risk of delay. But we think our lithium power design is sufficiently different,” head of the A350 XWB programme Didier Evrard was quoted as saying.

Yet the devil is in the details and Aspire Aviation thinks Airbus should stick with the nickel-cadmium battery given there is no substantial weight saving to be gained from the switch and the lower electrical power requirement of the A350. This will also avoid any potential regulatory risks arising from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the 787’s lithium-ion battery in which the cell that initiated the thermal runaway was so badly burnt such that the cause may never be uncovered. After all, it was Airbus’ chief operating officer (COO) customers John Leahy who once lamented that “game-changing technology should not be on airplanes just to be different”.

Rather, Airbus should continue to focus on tackling its biggest challenge – its ambitious production ramp-up to 10 aircraft per month by 2018 from 1 per month in January 2014 and 3 per month in early 2015 while incorporating any lessons learned from flight testing and managing design changes such as the 40% change in cabin parts from Batch 2 to Batch 3 aircraft on MSN017 that would be instrumental in trimming the aircraft’s weight as the first A350-900 is around 3 tonnes overweight and the shrunk -800 variant is the most overweight member.

As the A350-1000 enters into the industrial phase, “significant design tweaks” are still required to meet the aircraft’s specifications, Aspire Aviation‘s sources at Airbus conceded. Therefore finalising these design tweaks while introducing the stretched aircraft into the final assembly line (FAL) in late-2015 and possibly adding a second one, thereby maximising the first-mover advantage the A350-1000 retains versus the 777X and increasing its availability, remains Airbus’ top-priority. Intriguingly, the same sources also say the A350-800 design is “crystallised”, but has yet to secure board of directors approval to begin the industrialisation process.

The Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 powering the -1000, meanwhile, has completed its critical design review (CDR) in late September which features a larger engine core.

On the other hand, Boeing continues to suffer from a spate of technical glitches plaguing its flagship 787 Dreamliner whose dispatch reliability hovers at around 97%, down from 98.2% in June.

“While we’re seeing improvement, we’re not pleased yet. We still have customers that are not at that level. We’re doing some engineering changes at a component level. False messaging is one-third of all the issues here,” Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney said on Wednesday’s third-quarter earnings call.

These include the wiring defects discovered on 14th August on fire extinguishing bottles on 3 All Nippon Airways (ANA) 787s’ Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines that Boeing subsequently asked airlines to inspect, which, if left uncorrected, would trigger the wrong extinguisher on the other engine that runs normally.

Then comes the high-profile Norwegian Air Shuttle (NAS) row, with the airline’s 2nd 787 being grounded for 5 days over power supply issue in the aircraft’s electric brake system, followed by the failure of hydraulic pumps on the low-cost carrier’s another example, prompting the carrier to take one of the 2 examples in its fleet out of service for a few days, wet-lease a HiFly A340-300 and summon Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ chief executive Ray Conner to a meeting on 25th September.

The issue was resolved when Boeing redesigned the hydraulic pump controlling the 787’s flaps and also fixed other components, Norwegian chief executive Bjorn Kjos told Reuters.

JAL A350-900 A350-1000

But the 787’s perennial problems are not coming to a halt. On 6th September, an ANA 787 flight to Ube returned to Tokyo Haneda after an error message on hydraulics propped up and on 17th September a low battery warning showed up for the first time, although the error message disappeared shortly thereafter and visual inspection revealed no damage. Next, on 27th September, missing fuel filters on the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines of 2 LOT Polish Airlines 787s were found and a 787 flight was diverted to Keflavik airport on a Toronto-Warsaw flight 2 days later. On October 9, two Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 flights returned to their origins following a failure in electrical system and anti-ice system. As if these were not enough, a 8-by-4-feet fuselage panel fell off an Air India 787 on October 12 mid-flight from Delhi to Bangalore, which Boeing emphasised posed no safety risk as “the mid-underwing-to-body fairing located on the belly of the airplane on the right side” only “provides a more aerodynamic surface in flight”.

Nevertheless, given the amount of innovative technologies being introduced on the 787 Dreamliner in one fell swoop, especially its electrical architecture such as the replacement of a pneumatic system by bleedless air that supposedly is to reduce maintenance cost and weight, as well as the electric de-icing mat built by GKN, the string of technical glitches hardly comes as a surprise. The 787 is powered by a 1.5-megawatt (MW) electrical system, enough to supply 1,178 households for a year. When these are put into perspective, while it is true that the 787 is somewhat below the A380’s 96%-97% dispatch reliability at an early stage in entry into service (EIS), the 787 represents a whole new learning curve for Boeing as much as for its operators.

This is fully illustrated as Boeing prepares to repair the damaged Ethiopian Airlines 787 by cutting out the scotched area with rounded edges, replacing it with a carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) patch and gluing it with paintable sealant, before it is being cured under pressure and temperature using heat blankets and vacuum bags alongside the stringers, according to a Seattle Times report.

What is more, Boeing appears to have learnt its hard lesson and is having a smoother ride on the 787-9, which conducted its 5-hour 15-minute first flight on 18th September, the exact date the airframer set out 2.5 years earlier and is 500-1,000lbs below its manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW) target with later examples being 2% underweight (“Airbus is still name of the game“, 30th Aug, 13). Boeing vice president (VP) of 787 development says it took out 1.45 tonnes (10,000lbs) of weight from the airframe with its vice president (VP) and general manager (GM) of airplane development declaring that the 787-9 is “really about performance. The 787-9 is just an amazingly efficient machine. This is not a simple stretch.”

The first test airplane ZB001 is now beginning flutter tests imminently after concluding the initial phase of flight testing, including stall tests and successfully ironing out the “software logic error” that led to ZB001’s main landing gear door cycling on its first flight, Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources at Boeing revealed. The 787-9 is now on course to be delivered to launch customer Air New Zealand (ANZ) in April 2014 with the 74,000lbs Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 Package C engine, which was certificated by the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) in early September.

777X’s mission creep
This paves a solid foundation upon which the 777-9X will build, which can ill-afford any further slippages beyond its second-quarter 2020 service entry target. But delay is not the only thing Boeing should guard against. The latest developments of the 777X programme, which is widely anticipated to be launched at next month’s Dubai Air Show, are showing a trend of mission creep, which, if persists, could lead it to be over-built catered for a few customers while a majority of other airlines do not need the extra specifications.

Over the past few months, Boeing has upped the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 353-seat 777-8X and 407-seat 777-9X from 349,000kg to 351,534kg (775,000lbs), thereby improving the aircraft’s payload/range performance and boosting the -9X’s range to 8,100nm (nautical miles), Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources at Boeing disclosed. Its GE9X engine thrust was then increased from just under 100,000lbs to 102,000lbs.

In recent weeks, that figure was increased yet again to 105,000lbs with 108,000lbs of thrust being eyed by Boeing and General Electric, company sources at both companies confirmed. Boeing’s eventual goal, one of the sources claimed, is to match the 8,400nm range being offered by the considerably smaller 350-seat A350-1000 while providing superior payload-hauling capability.

A case in point is the 777-9X’s 4th-generation supercritical carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) wing, whose 71.1m (233.4ft) wingspan is 6.3m wider than the 777-300ER’s 64.8m. Despite the -9X’s 6.9% larger wing than the 777-300ER’s 436.8m² by adding 30m² (322.9ft²) to the wing area and a 12% better lift-to-drag ratio, thereby lowering the average wing loading per square metre by a similar amount, the GE9X’s thrust is only 8.9% lower than the GE90-115B’s 115,300lbs, or just 6.3% lower should the thrust rating be indeed raised to 108,000lbs.

Combined with the 777-9X being 10.3% more weight efficient in terms of maximum take-off weight (MTOW) per seat than the 368-seat 777-300ER, as well as 1.9% more weight efficient than the A350-1000, extending the -9X’s range to 8,400nm, a 7.35% increase over the -300ER’s 7,825nm, seems firmly achievable.

Similarly, Emirates has pushed General Electric (GE) to add a water-injection system to the GE9X for year-round operation under high-temperature, which will add complexity and increase maintenance cost for carriers not requiring the system in addition to weight penalty, Aspire Aviation‘s sources at Boeing said. The system will increase mass airflow and reduce the high pressure compressor’s (HPC) temperature.

“Unlike earlier demineralised water-injection systems such as on the BAC 1-11, this one is all about coolant – very high temperatures at high work rates. It makes a very material difference to our operating capabilities in the hot months in Dubai. Without that, the 777-9X doesn’t do that much better in those conditions than the -300ER does today,” Emirates president Tim Clark asserted.

A350-900

A350-1000

777-300ER

777-8X

777-9X

787-10

3-class pax no.

314

350

368

353

407

320

Range (nm)

8,100

8,400

7,825

9,480

8,100

7,000

~7,000 (regional)

MTOW (kg)

268,000

308,000

351,530

351,534

351,534

250,830

250,000 (regional)

775,000lbs

775,000lbs

553,000lbs

MLW (kg)

205,000

233,000

251,290

n/a

n/a

201,800

445,000lbs

MZFW (kg)

192,000

220,000

237,683

n/a

n/a

192,800

425,000lbs

MEW/MWE (kg)

115,700

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

OEW (kg)

n/a

n/a

167,829

n/a

n/a

n/a

Overall length (m)

66.89

73.88

73.9

69.55

76.48

68.28

Wingspan (m)

64.75

64.75

64.8

71.1

71.1

60.1

Diameter (m)

5.96

5.96

6.19

6.19

6.19

5.77

Cabin Width (m)

5.61

5.61

5.86

5.96

5.96

5.49

Engines

Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-84

Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97

General Electric GE90-115B

General Electric GE9X

General Electric GE9X

General Electric GEnx-1B PIP 2

Rolls-Royce Trent 1000-TEN

Thrust (lbs)

84,000

97,000

115,300

105,000

105,000

76,000

75,000 (regional)

Sources: Airbus, Boeing, Aspire Aviation estimates

The GE9X engine, which will have a 10% lower specific fuel consumption (SFC) than the GE90-115B it is replacing, has begun high pressure compressor (HPC) testing in mid-September after starting validation tests of its 16 composite blades, 2 fewer than the GEnx, in August. The 132-inch engine will be the centrepiece of the upgrade, featuring 3rd-generation twin annual pre-mixing swirler (TAPS III) and ceramic matrix composite (CMC), in addition to a higher pressure compressor ratio from 23:1 to 27:1, higher overall pressure ratio (OPR) at 61:1 from 42:1 and a 10.3:1 bypass ratio.

While this is welcoming news for Middle Eastern carriers such as Emirates which demands the capability of uplifting 50-tonne payload year-round between Los Angeles and Dubai, Boeing’ tout of the 787-10’s 7,000nm range as covering more than 90% of all the world’s twin-aisle flights shows the extra range of the aircraft for the remaining 10% of all worldwide twin-aisle flights that airlines have to pay for.

So far, the US$11 billion price tag of Lufthansa’s order for 34 777-9X jets implies a US$340 million cost per aircraft on average, only 6.2% higher than the 777-300ER’s US$320.2 million apiece. This means Boeing has done it right in not making these extra performances “pricey perks” that airlines have to foot despite not requiring them, but underlines the significant importance in driving down the 777X’s production cost.

This has wide-ranging implications on the 777X’s manufacturing process, with multiple Boeing sources now naming Charleston, South Carolina as the most likely site for building the largest wing Boeing has ever constructed primarily due to lower production cost. Following the loss of the JAL order, which was once thought to be a bargaining chip for the 777X wing’s work in Japan, the business case of having the 777X wing built in Charleston, South Carolina has strengthened, Aspire Aviation‘s sources at Boeing concurred. It would also utilise the 320 acres of land Boeing acquired for US$12.5 million in December last year with the option to purchase an additional 750 acres of land.

The drive of affordability also sees the Boeing 777X have a traditional aluminium fuselage, which the Japanese heavies will continue to supply its panels. The abandonment of the advanced lightweight 3rd-generation aluminium-lithium (Al-Li) material, which promises to trim 12% of weight and 6% of skin friction, is also directly attributable to cost-saving as Al-Li is “too expensive” and requires “major redesigns”, the same sources say.

On the plus side, the mission creep of the 777X means airlines will benefit from the aircraft’s improved payload/range performance that enables them to open up new routes, or tap into growth opportunities while balancing frequency and belly cargo. The 407-seat 777-9X will have a 20% lower fuel burn per seat and a 15% reduction in cash operating cost (COC).

This bodes well for frequency-based premium carrier such as Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific which flies 5 times daily to London Heathrow, with 2 pairs of flights – CX255 and CX251 departing within 1 hour of each other whereas another pair, CX239 and CX237, departs within 20 minutes of each other, yet is still running a 95% load factor and seeking for growth without cannibalising yields by adding too much capacity and avoiding any spill-over demand, where last-minute walk-up business travellers prefer frequencies and choose the next available flight (“Cathay Pacific could profit from changing times“, 13th Sep, 13). These are price-inelastic premium passengers who pay the full fares, accounting for 27.8% of airlines’ revenue but only 8.4% of all traffic, the latest premium traffic monitor of industry body International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed.

The 353-seat 777-8X which is a shrink variant of the -9X, in particular, could make previously economically unfeasible routes viable, as its 69.55m long fuselage, from the 301-seat 777-200LR’s 63.7m long one, enlarges the aircraft’s revenue cargo volume from the -200LR’s 3,743ft³ (106m³) and carries 17% more passengers over a 9,480nm long sector. The decent amount of payload is likely to kindle in ultra long-haul flights from Sydney to Rome, which is 8,823nm long and the world’s longest flight from Sydney to Dallas that is 7,452nm long, following the world’s 2nd longest one, Singapore-Los Angeles, was suspended on October 24 and the longest one between Singapore and Newark will cease on November 25 as Singapore Airlines (SIA) pulls its 8,283nm long loss-making service.

Image Courtesy of General Electric

Image Courtesy of General Electric

Changing competitive landscape
As the 777-9X gears up for launch, with Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways discussing a US$50 billion order for 25-30 777Xs and up to 30 additional 787s and Cathay Pacific likely to be one of the early customers for 777-9X as a “420-seat ULH heavy-duty airliner”, an internal document exclusively obtained by Aspire Aviation showed alongside Emirates’ expected large order, it faces the emerging threat from not least the A350-1000, but also a second A350 final assembly line (FAL) and a double-stretched variant.

Make no mistake, although the A350-1000 is going to be a very competitive and the most fuel efficient aircraft in the 350-seat segment, which Airbus claims will have a 15% lower block fuel burn than the 777-9X despite carrying 10% fewer passengers, it is exactly the -9X’s superb fuel burn per seat and larger revenue cargo volume that prompted Airbus to commence its preliminary study into the possibility of a double-stretch variant.

“Stretching further is possible, there are no show-stoppers, but today it’s still in the pre-concept phase. We are not in a hurry to define another product, but if the market needs it, we will do it. Others did it, we can certainly do it, too,” head of the A350 XWB programme Didier Evrard told Aviation Week.

Underpinning the case for a larger aircraft in the 400-seat market is the 5% average annual growth in passenger traffic over the next 20 years, with Asia/Pacific traffic growing at a 6.3% annual pace, according to the latest current market outlook (CMO) produced by Boeing. This will lead to a requirement of 1,470 medium wide-body, or 11% of the worldwide requirement of 3,300 such aircraft valued at US$1.09 trillion. In comparison, Airbus’ newly-released global market forecast (GMF) envisages 7,273 twin-aisle aircraft being produced, 299 more than last year’s forecast.

Given the 407-seat 777-9X is just 10.6% larger than the 368-seat -300ER in numbers of passengers, it is not difficult to see the “sweet spot” of the market is moving incrementally upward. Facing this, Airbus virtually has 2 strategic options in formulating its competitive response: the first one involves further stretching but delaying the A350-1000 by a few years, whereas the second one involves shelving the smallest -800 variant, preserving the 350-seat A350-1000 while developing a larger double-stretch variant.

Aspire Aviation favours the second option, not only because the A350-800 is not an optimised platform with a shrinking backlog of 89 examples, but also there will continue to be a unique replacement market for 350-seat aircraft where the 777-300ER has 711 orders as of September 31st, including 279 unfilled orders. Coupled with its gradually improved availability, Airbus could build on the -1000’s increasing momentum, as 7 Boeing 777-300ER customers have already placed -1000 orders, let alone some of them are blue-chip industry benchmarks such as British Airways (BA), Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines (JAL), just to name a few. In total, 777-300ER customers have ordered 486 A350s, accounting for 64.3% of the A350’s 756 orders backlog, including lessor ALAFCO which helped finance 2 B777-300ERs for Garuda Indonesia.

Otherwise, Airbus could lose its biggest strategic advantage – early availability should it choose to postpone the A350-1000’s entry into service (EIS) and embark on major redesigns, let alone doing so would leave the 353-seat 777-8X as the only contender in the 350-seat market, albeit the -8X is arguably catered for ultra long-haul flights.

While the A350-1000’s lighter airframe may not necessitate a wingspan as large as 777-9X’s, of which the outermost 11ft (3.35m) can be folded up with a hydraulics actuator and a piano-type topside hinge to make it an International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Code E aircraft at airport gates with a 64.8m (212.7ft) wingspan while being a Code F aircraft on the runway, stretching the A350-1000 would nonetheless require virtually a new, considerably larger wing to provide more lift while spooling up its engine thrust beyond 97,000lbs.

Therefore stretching the A350-1000 further would be a major investment demanding considerable financial and engineering resources, while adding years of delays to its mid-2017 service entry target.

Airbus_Family_flight_air_to_air_A350_XWB_-_A380

Furthermore, the 777-9X is likely to stack up well against a stretched A350-1000, although its folding wingtip carries a weight penalty of 800lbs (362.9kg), down from the 3,200lbs (1.45 tonnes) associated with the original concept studied for the 777-200 in 1995.

First of all, the 777-9X will carry considerably more passengers than a stretched A350-1000 even if its fuselage is lengthened to match -9X’s 76.48m, due to its narrower fuselage. The 777-9X’s diameter of 6.19m is wider than the -1000’s 5.96m and its cabin width is 17.5 inches wider at 234 inches after “internal widening” by carving out the sidewalls, compared to the A350-1000’s 216.53 inches.

Admittedly, Airbus’ standard 3-class configuration more accurately reflects the dynamics in today’s global airline industry in assuming a 60 inches seat pitch for business class seats whereas Boeing assumes a 39 inches seat pitch for business class seats and a 61-inch seat pitch for first class seats in its calculation, while both aircraft manufacturers assume a 32-inch seat pitch for economy seats. Aspire Aviation believes this makes the 407 3-class seat count for the 777-9X somewhat high while the Airbus’ 385-seat assumption on the 777-9X slightly low. A middle ground around 395 seats in a 3-class configuration therefore seems more suitable when evaluating the economic performance of these aircraft, as higher seat counts can significantly distort the per-seat comparison between them, as could stage length.

However, in terms of seat width, the 777-9X could become a 10-abreast aircraft whereas the A350-900 will remain a 9-abreast aircraft. At first glance, this would make the 777-9X aircraft considerably less comfortable for such long-haul flights. On the contrary, though, based on the aforementioned cabin widths and two 17-inch wide aisles, the seat width on a 10-abreast 777-9X would be comparable to the A350-1000’s, the former at 20 inches and the latter at 20.3 inches. Should two 18-inch wide aisles be used, as in the Airbus dossier, the 10-abreast 777-9X would have a 19.8 inches seat width whereas the A350-1000 20 inches, all inclusive of armrests.

Additionally, the weight advantage the stretched A350-1000 possesses against the 777-9X’s aluminium fuselage/carbon fibre wing combination is not as clear-cut. Aluminium producer Alcoa once noted that carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) starts with a 45% density advantage against traditional aluminium, of which 25% is lost since CFRP is orthotropic and unidirectional – requiring multiple layers in different directions to bear the same engineering loads. Another 10% is then lost to the creation of an electrical structural network (ESN) by meshing a copper wire into the CFRP fuselage, as well as the weight of fasteners, bus bar; while the last 10% advantage is completely eroded due to CFRP’s inability to be tapered to the extent as aluminium.

All in all, Airbus is not anticipated to make any move in further stretching the A350-1000 anytime soon while its baseline model is still in flight tests. But as the A350-1000 advances further in the industrialisation process, the more difficult and costlier it becomes for Airbus to tweak its design substantially. In the meantime, the Boeing 777X will be capturing significant demand from airlines ranging from Gulf mega-carriers to Asia/Pacific and Latin American ones seeking for growth opportunities, as well as European and North American ones in search of a one-to-one replacement to the ageing and fuel-guzzling 416-seat 747-400s.

Last but not least, as the 300-400-seat market evolves and the mini-jumbo war plays out, there will unfortunately be a winner’s curse, with the 407-seat 777-9X and the A350-1000, regardless of whether the latter is stretched or not, cannibalising both the 558-seat 11-abreast A380 and 467-seat 747-8I Intercontinental. The situation is particularly challenging for Airbus, given its significant investment in the superjumbo, open delivery slots in 2015 and a dwindling backlog at 148 aircraft, including those vulnerable for cancellations such as Kingfisher Airlines’ order for 5, Virgin Atlantic 6 and Hong Kong Airlines 10.

“If you are a new customer I do not have anything available in 2015; if you’re an existing customer who doesn’t want to have his spec changed I could get you a couple of slots at the end of 2015,” Airbus chief operating officer (COO) customers John Leahy defended.

Boeing is not fairing any better, either; it has recorded 5 cancellations offsetting Cathay Pacific’s order for 3 747-8F freighters and Silk Way Airlines’ for 2 747-8Fs. A firm order from Korean Air today only boosts the backlog of the -8I Intercontinental by 5 to 28 units, which comes as Boeing agrees to help the SkyTeam carrier retire 15 747-400s by 2017, in a similar fashion to Cathay’s deal in which Boeing agrees to buy back 4 ageing 747-400 BCF converted freighters.

Notwithstanding this year’s dearth of orders with Lufthansa cancelling 3 A380 orders in an alarming development, Airbus remains confident on the A380’s outlook in predicting a need for 1,711 aircraft over the next 20 years, a addition of 5 from the prior year forecast, whereas Boeing only predicts a need for 780 such aircraft.

“We cannot be happy with the sales of A380 we have today, but I strongly believe the A380 has a bright future. It’s a tremendous profit machine. Of course you have to fill. If you have a 75% load factor, you’ll have a problem, you’ll have to lower frequencies. There is immense potential for improvement and I’m quite comfortable going forward,” European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. (EADS) chief executive Tom Enders stressed during a National Aviation Press Club (NAPC) luncheon in Sydney on 14th October.

That said, the age of four-engined jets is fast becoming history and a bygone era, as fuel prices remain stubbornly high and the global economic recovery continues to be anaemic. After all, very large airplanes (VLAs) are an inherently risky financial investment with a 75% break-even load factor (BELF), thus making it difficult to fill during an economic downturn. As the 407-seat 777-9X is able to haul more freight in its belly where revenue cargo volume will exceed the 777-300ER’s 5,200ft³, against the 747-8I’s 3,895ft³ and A380’s 2,995ft³, while offering the same seat-mile cost as the A380 whereas the 747-8I’s seat-mile cost will only match the 777-300ER’s by 2014, the business case of both VLAs is being significantly undermined.

For Airbus, though, the threat posed by the Boeing 777-9X is just as significant for the A380 as it is for the A350-1000.

Image Courtesy of Boeing

Image Courtesy of Boeing

18 Comments

  1. keesje October 24, 2013 Reply

    Great article Daniel!

    Two comments; the airlines can do an aisle width of 20 inch or more. E.g 17 inch aisles to increase 10 abreast seat width on the 777X are not allowed. http://www.risingup.com/fars/info/part25-815-FAR.shtml. A 777X 10 abreast cabin will be significantly less comfortable then a A350-1000 in economy class. if rumours are right, CX, SQ, BA and JAL balked on the 10 abreast 777X proposal.

    Airbus doesn’t have to go for a new wing for an A350-1100. It enlarged the wing, landing gear and engine core already for the -1000. Even delayed the -1000 for it. Wingloading for an -1100 would still be way lower then e.g. for the 777X. An -1100 would be a pretty straight forward stretch. No enormous investment / lead times required. They will have done most for the -1000 already.

    100 k lbs engines for the bigger 777-9X. To good to be truth. A further growth towards GE-11X levels would be unsurprising and wise IMO. Beating the only slightly shorter but much lighter A350-1000 on real world per seat costs seems unlikely. So better work on the Payload-Range site (long range belly cargo capability!)

    • Charles McFarland October 25, 2013 Reply

      Another good article from Daniel. In today’s WSJ, Jon Ostrower wrote in The Incredible Shrinking Plane Seat, several airlines are reconfiguring the Boeing 777 to seat ten across in economy with 17 inch aisles. That’s the same 17 inch seat many are already using in the 787 to seat nine across in economy.

    • Author
      Daniel Tsang October 25, 2013 Reply

      Re keesje,

      Per the Airbus documentation, the baseline A350-900 9-abreast assumes a 18.1-inch wide aisle. Boeing’s assumes 17 inches.
      http://www.airbus.com/fileadmin/media_gallery/files/tech_data/AC/AC_A350-900_20130601-June-2013.pdf

      Another observation that the A350’s max. cabin width of 5.61m (220.9in), seems to be the armrest level rather than floor level. Therefore the width is using the 216.53 inches figure calculated from the 9-abreast baseline graphic in the Airbus document.

  2. Jacobin777 October 24, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for the analysis Daniel!

    Its interesting that Boeing decided not to go with Al-Li due to costs,etc.. A 12% reduction however would have made the B77X a much, much more efficient plane as it would have required even a lower thrust, etc.

    @Keesje, if rumours are correct of at least CX purchasing the B77X then whatever rumours you are mentioning might not be correct (at least when it comes to CX).

    Also, as more carriers add Y+ 9-across, it seems carriers are understanding that 10-across for “cattle” is the way to go as more and more B777s are being delivered with 10-across in Y.

    I still would have loved to see Boeing go with Al-Li-even if it intially increases costs.

  3. Greg Schmitz October 25, 2013 Reply

    Hopefully the equation will change in regards to the LiAl material.

    Boeing needs to build the best aircraft it can, not go cheap.

    I would call it another stupid decision by Mcanearny not the tech solutions that got Boeing to its best days (he is a mediocre manager at best and needs to go)

    The management has shot Boeing in the foot since day one. They have lost huge numbers of orders with the dithering and chicken decisions.

    They will not dominate the large twin aisle market the way they claim. Airbus may not have the best offering in the A350 and its structure, but its good enough to be competaive in that class they put themselves in (not the 787) and Airbus has the orders to prove it.

    • Author
      Daniel Tsang October 25, 2013 Reply

      Re Greg & Jacobin777,

      Yes, I couldn’t agree more. But the goal of Boeing these days is to maximise shareholder returns. & the benefits of the Al-Li material isn’t as clear-cut… Both in terms of weight & costs.

      • Jacobin777 October 25, 2013 Reply

        Daniel,

        If its “all about shareholder return” then its not only rather sad but rather revealing about current management. Fortunately McNerney should be leaving soon (mandatory retirement) and changes can be made. I would like to see a Chairman/CEO who can “balance” both engineering and fiduciary responsibilities.

        If what you say is true abou Al-Li (i.e.-12% weight savings), then how can it not be beneficial? That being said, I don’t know what type of “traditional aluminum” fuselage is going to be used. Even current generation aluminum fuselages are better than ones used 20 years ago. Regardless, I don’t see the weight savings compared to Al-Li or some other form of aluminum alloy.

        I do have a question:

        Since most of the B77X efficiencies will come from the engine and wings, along with the B77W what would happen if Boeing improved the B773A to the B77X standards? Its MTOW is quite low and it would be able to fulfil a number of carriers needs.

  4. Patrick Kilby October 25, 2013 Reply

    “As the 407-seat 777-9X is able to haul more freight in its belly , while offering the same seat-mile cost as the A380 whereas the 747-8I’s seat-mile cost will only match the 777-300ER’s by 2014″ Daniel is the seat mile cost based on 11 across on the 380 @ about 580-600 seats or 10 across ~500. The 777 is 10 across on EK the largest user, so an apples to apples comparison would be a much higher load on the A380. Also by then (2020) the the A380 will have a better engine, the time you are comparing to. Seven years is an awful long time in aviation.

  5. CubJ3 October 26, 2013 Reply

    Sadly, you are completely correct that the battery fire/smoldering in Boston was probably the main cause of JAL’s defection. What that debacle showed was that B had not designed a proper electrical system. despite the fact that the system was the most revolutionaary feature of the 787 and there had been two battery-related disasters during testing, the emergency landing in Laredo, TX and the fire from a failed battery that burned down an entire building. JAL like everyone else, was asking, How the hell could you have le these planes out the door without something as cheap and safe as a containment box? I think there was also an unspoken condition that B had failed to adequately re-design the electrical system during testing because to do so would have resulted in another time consuming delay. In any case, theJapanese hold that meeting one’s obligations is a matter of personal honor, and Boeing had failed to do that in almost every phase of the 787 development, and then when battery failures arose, had initially tried to shift the blame to the Japanese battery mfrer, when it was B that designed the electrical system. Game, set, match.

  6. keesje October 27, 2013 Reply

    Well, maybe one of the reason JAL defected is the same reason the other top 5 777 operators defected.

    The Airbus A350 XWB being technological and operationally superior to the proposed Boeing 787-10 /777-8X / 777-9X combination.

    Just guesing of course. We can’t say at this stage. 777X design freeze is still far away, let alone EIS.

  7. duncanspence October 29, 2013 Reply

    Get over the the JAL order it had been decided before the B787 problems http://www.cnbc.com/id/100488815

  8. Muhammad Kaloo November 6, 2013 Reply

    Hi everyone! I have a question that I hope/believe will help the discussion.

    What is the maximum range of the following aircraft with maximum passenger load (3-class), filled with cargo as much as possible and considering head winds:
    A350-900
    A350-1000
    A380-800
    B787-9
    B787-10
    B777-8
    B777-9

    I believe that knowing this information will help us understand on some level what the airlines are thinking.

    Thanks to anyone who can provide this information!

    • Author
      Daniel Tsang November 6, 2013 Reply

      Hi Muhammad,

      I’m currently on leave, hence I won’t post any analysis until Nov 15th.

      Boeing’s range figures assume 85% annual winds & pax cargo, but NO revenue cargo.

      Should the revenue cargo volume be completely filled, depending on aircraft such as the A350-1000, 777-9X & -300ER that have a large “revenue cargo volume”…

      The range could be reduced by up to 2,000nm.

      Hope this helps,
      Daniel.

  9. Muhammad Kaloo November 6, 2013 Reply

    Hi Daniel!
    Thanks, it does help! Wow that’s quite a reduction!

    I hope you enjoy your time off!

  10. Author
    Daniel Tsang November 6, 2013 Reply

    Muhammad,

    http://www.flightglobal.com/airspace/media/reports_pdf/emptys/106739/short-medium-haul-widebody-ailiner-market-2013.pdf

    Mike Bair of Boeing said the following:
    “A lot of customers that buy long range aircraft buy them because they want to fill up the lower lobe, and an 8,000 mile aircraft with volume limited cargo at the bottom is 6,000 miles. So it’s a very confusing exercise to try to understand what’s long range and what’s not because of the way these things are used.”

  11. Muhammad Kaloo November 6, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for the link Daniel! I will read it when I’m at my computer.

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