Airline demands for range and payload characteristics better tailored to their specific needs have prompted a shift in how Boeing approaches optimization of the various airplanes within a given family. Most recently, studies centered on market demand for a potential third version of the 787 Dreamliner, commonly known as the 787-10X, have sent Boeing in a direction toward an airplane that offers perhaps less range than expected in exchange for still better economics, for example.
During a pre-show briefing at the company’s widebody plant in Everett, Washington, Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) v-p of business development and strategic integration Nicole Piasecki alluded to plans for a 15-percent increase in passenger capacity compared with the upcoming 787-9, which itself will hold 40 more passengers than the 787-8. But while 787-8 flies as far as 8,200 nm and specifications for the -9 show a range of between 8,000 and 8,500 nm, Boeing has identified an optimal range of just 6,800 nm for the 787-10X.
Most widebodies operate in what Piasecki identified as “that medium-range segment” covering the inter-Asia market, domestic China, the Middle East to Europe and over the Atlantic Ocean. The 787-10X, she said, would make a “very low-cost people mover.”
“As airlines have changed some of their buying behavior in this high and volatile fuel-price environment, they are looking for airplanes that more uniquely fit the routes and the missions in their networks,” said Piasecki. “So if they don’t have to be carrying around a whole bunch of fuel because really they’re flying only 5,000 nautical miles per day, they no longer want that airplane.”
Just a decade ago, she recalled, Boeing set a goal to offer an 8,200-nm range across its entire line of widebodies. Since then, the OEM’s philosophy has shifted along with its customers’ priorities.
“We’re beginning to think of range differently, where there’s a mid-range type of widebody market and a longer haul market. Both are very viable, but we see probably more segmentation over the next 20 years–in how airplanes operate and, therefore, in the airplanes we choose to deliver into the market,” she said.
Meanwhile, Boeing generally sees airlines demanding more large airplanes in the twin-aisle market, with the exception, perhaps, of what it categorizes as the very-large segment, where its most recent 20-year forecast reflects somewhat less optimism than it showed even in last year’s market outlook.
Boeing, said Piasecki, faces two major decisions in the coming months: the first surrounding the launch of the 787-10X, and the second involving the open “trade spaces” identified by 777 program vice president and general manager Scott Fancher in his references to the 777X.
The 777X family, under study for about the past 18 months, would replace the 777-300ER and, according to Boeing, offer the best payload-range capability in the widebody market.
Production Rate To Increase
Reacting to what Piasecki called an industry starved for widebody equipment, Boeing, which now builds seven 777s a month, plans to “break rate” in October, and deliver the first airplane built at a planned 8.3 per month in February. “We look at not just product technology but production technology, because we know we have to build airplanes that our customers can afford, and that we can make money on,” she said. “Since I’ve mentioned production, it’s not just Boeing that we look at. But as we look at these multiple programs, we look all the way down through the supply chain. In our operations organization they’re as much a part of these product conversations as, for example, is Mike Delaney, our head of engineering.”
Piasecki recalled Boeing’s experience in the early 1990s, when it launched the 777 and, soon after, began development of the 737NG. By the time it had finished with the development of those programs, the company experienced a “dip” in activity, during which it lost engineers. Now, said Piasecki, the company sees an opportunity to maintain a stable level of investment in engineering resources, which will benefit not only Boeing but also its customers for many years.
Despite Boeing’s interest in what Airbus ultimately unveils with its A350-1000, the U.S. OEM needs to maintain schedule discipline to get enough equipment to the customers that need it. Still, Boeing won’t rush the 777X because it doesn’t need to do so yet, according to Piasecki.
“It would be inappropriate for me to say that it [the A350-1000] did not influence [the 777X decision],” she said. “We know the A350-1000 will be something that it isn’t today because the market hasn’t embraced it yet. So we are interested to know what it is because we are going to be better than whatever it is.”
Notwithstanding earlier signals sent by BCA chief executive Jim Albaugh that he intends to approach the board with a proposal by the end of the year, there remains plenty of time to adjust to whatever Airbus does, she added, even while work on such areas as technology readiness studies, engine audits and production system changes continue unabated as Boeing prepares the 777X for entry into service by the turn of the decade.
“When we’re ready to go to the board and we have confidence in the investment we’re proposing, that it will be enduring, we will go to the board,” said Piasecki. “Right now we have a set of customers that are willing to make decisions and at some point we’ve got to be responsive to their needs as well.”
Responding to those needs might mean waiting for Airbus, however, because customers want competition and, therefore, a firmly defined A350-1000 against which to judge the merits of the new 777.
As always, Boeing needs to strike a kind of balance between its own needs and its customers’ desires. But, with the 777X, it must consider so many more variables than it does in the case of the 787-10X. The stretched Dreamliner would amount to an extension of an existing family, while the 777X could mean a substantial reconsideration of an airplane that still carries strong appeal in the market. Plans already call for an all-new wing and new engines, as well as changes to the interior to enhance passenger comfort.
“The 787-10X is a much more straightforward work statement and is really about completing the 787 family,” said Piasecki. “It, too, will go to the board when Jim [Albaugh] feels comfortable that it’s the right thing to do given everything else on our plates. But I have a positive outlook on both those airplanes.”