The rulers in the Arabian Gulf region strive for bigger and better in practically every pursuit they undertake, and that includes air transport. So when Boeing drew its plans for its proposed new 777X, its considerations no doubt included the needs of those in the Middle East, who are some of the biggest customers for the current 777.
Speaking with AIN a few weeks before the start of this Dubai Air Show, Boeing vice president of marketing Randy Tinseth characterized the 777 as perhaps the most important widebody airplane in the Middle Eastern market. Of course, what makes an airplane important could vary depending on one’s perspective. But in terms of the sheer numbers, the 777 stands alone, thanks largely to Emirates Airline’s fleet of more than 130 airplanes.
One of Boeing’s most promising customers for the 777X, Emirates has spent more than two years working with the manufacturer on the size and performance specifications of the airplane, which it says will burn 20 percent less fuel per passenger and generate 15 percent less operating costs than existing 777s.
“When I think about the 777X, I just think of it as bigger and better than the airplane we have today,” said Tinseth. “I know it sounds pretty simple, but it is bigger; the whole family is bigger.”
The “family” would consist of the 777-8X and -9X, estimated to typically seat around 350 and 400 passengers, respectively. The 8X would replace the 777-200LR, now the world’s longest-range commercial jet, which seats roughly 300; the 9X would replace the 777-300ER, which seats some 365.
“What makes it better is really the new wing and the new engine, which improves fuel efficiency,” added Tinseth. Boeing has opted to design an all-new composite wing for the 777X and offer the proposed GE9X–expected to generate 102,000 pounds of thrust–as the sole engine choice.
Although the cross section of the 777X’s aluminum fuselage wouldn’t change, Boeing plans to squeeze another four inches out of the interior by reengineering the frame profile and resculpting the side panels, explained Tinseth. Airlines such as Emirates, like 70 percent of all 777 operators, outfit its airplanes with a 10-seat-abreast interior rather than nine, making every extra inch valuable.
“We can use the same aluminum fuselage that we have today, which is good news for us,” said Tinseth. “It does a couple of things. It keeps the cost of development down for us; it allows us to use the same systems on today’s airplane, so all the issues that any new airplane goes through with systems development we don’t have to go through on this aircraft…Then we’re going to take some of the technology from the 787, some other things that we’ve been thinking about in terms of airplane development and bring it into the interior…again, bigger and better.”
Of course, “longer” would also serve as an accurate description of the 777X, both as it relates to the fuselage and its flying legs, which, according to Tinseth, would allow the 8X to connect any two points on the globe through the Gulf. Tinseth couldn’t name the additional number of city pairs the extra “few hundred” nautical miles would allow the 8X to serve, but he insisted that potential customers consider the benefit more than incidental. “In talking with some of our customers, they certainly see some value there,” he said.
Boeing sees value in the 777-8X’s ability to compete directly with the Airbus A350-1000, and the prospect of the 9X more effectively filling the capacity gap that exists now between the 777-300ER and the 747-8. In a typical three-class configuration the 747-8 seats some 465 passengers, amounting to about 15 percent more capacity than that offered by the 777-9X, which itself would carry nearly 15 percent more than the 8X.
“If you don’t need the range [of the 8X] we can dial back on the takeoff weight of the airplane and improve the economics a little bit by doing that, and then it’s really a head-to-head competitor with the A350-1000,” said Tinseth. “When we designed the 777X, we wanted to make sure it complemented the range, economics and performance of the 747-8,” he added. “We wanted to make sure that…from the 747 to the 777, the 777X to the 787, that all those families really work to complement and supplement what they do for each other.”
Boeing claims to offer a far more “seamless” widebody product line than its competition fields. Airbus has yet to offer an option to fill the capacity gap between the 350-seat A350-1000 and 555-seat A380. Nevertheless, unlike the 747-8I, the A380 has drawn substantial sales in the region, specifically from Emirates, which operates nearly 40 of a total firm order count of 48. Saudi Arabian Airlines flies a pair of 747-8 freighters and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad leases a single 747-8F under an aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI) lease with Atlas Air. Tinseth, however, noted that both manufacturers have struggled to sell aircraft in the size category of the A380 and 747-8 over the past two or three years.
“I have to be honest with you, the 747/A380 market has been pretty slow over the last couple of years,” he said. “But as airlines continue to see the strong growth that we’ve seen over the past few years, I do believe [that will change] and we’re in contact with several airlines about 747 opportunities.”