Boeing didn't disappoint showgoers hoping to see the 777X on display for the first time at an international air show, as the first flight test example of the big widebody graces the Dubai static display and participates in the show's flying program, which begins today. The 777-9, the larger of the two planned 777X variants, landed on November 9 at Dubai World Central following a 15-hour nonstop journey from Seattle's Boeing Field. The trip represented the airplane's first international flight and the longest to date as it continues to undergo a rigorous flight test program scheduled for completion in 2023.
Visitors will get their first glimpse of one of the big twin's most distinguishing design features—a pair of 12-foot-long folding wingtips that will allow regulators to classify the 777X as Code E, meaning they’ll fit into the same size parking space the 777-300ER now uses. The Airbus A380, conversely, is a Code F airplane, significantly limiting the number of airports from which it can operate. Featuring 105,000-pound-thrust GE9X turbofans and structural improvements to the fuselage that will allow for a 6,000-foot cabin altitude, the four composite-winged 777X prototypes have now accumulated 1,700 hours of test flying, generating a wealth of data for close scrutiny by global regulators and launch customers.
The Boeing 777X’s first appearance outside the U.S. comes as questions from launch customer Emirates and its outspoken president Tim Clark over performance and certain certification hurdles remain unanswered.
The new widebody, the first example of the four flying prototypes participating in the flight test program, arrived in Dubai some 10 months after Boeing last shifted its timelines to reflect expected first delivery to Emirates by the end of 2023. In the interim, Clark has consistently called for more transparency from the U.S. aerospace giant on whether or not the program will meet the airline’s performance requirements and delivery expectations.
Clark called for a “grown-up conversation” with Boeing executives over the issue, some eight years after Emirates signed on as the launch customer for the 777X during the 2013 Dubai Airshow. Since placing the launch order, Emirates has converted orders for thirty 777Xs to positions on 787-9s and shifted six 777-300ERs to 777Xs, taking its 777X order count to 126. Once the airline gained further “visibility” on the results of flight testing, it would decide on how many more conversions to Dreamliners it would execute, said Clark.
Originally scheduled for certification in 2020, the 777X has encountered more than one major hurdle on its way to first delivery, most notably more thorough oversight from regulators resulting from investigations into the twin fatal crashes of the 737 Max in October 2018 and March 2019.
Boeing CEO David Calhoun acknowledged as much during a January earnings call, when he said “certain modifications” to the aircraft design involving both software and hardware changes to the actuator control electronics reflected the company’s “current judgment of global regulators' compliance expectations.” Calhoun also adjusted downward long-term expectations for passenger traffic brought about by the Covid pandemic on long-haul routes, in particular, shifting "to the right" the anticipated replacement wave of widebodies in the capacity range of the 777X. Finally, 777X customers have asked for delivery deferrals directly due to their projections for their own fleet needs over the coming few years.
Asked just ahead of the start of the show for comment on progress the program has made since shifting the delivery timeframe to the end of 2023, Boeing said that the timing remains intact and that it “remains pleased” with the aircraft’s performance during testing, despite an FAA decision in May to reject the company’s request for type inspection authorization (TIA). First published in the Seattle Times, reports of the TIA rejection revealed that a May 13 letter from the agency explaining the reasoning for its decision raised what the paper called a litany of concerns, including an uncommanded pitch event last December 8.
The letter noted that although Boeing promises a software correction, it hadn’t at the time addressed the problem to the agency’s satisfaction. Queried by AIN about the status of TIA, Boeing declined to offer an update as the show approached.
“We’re working closely with global regulators on all aspects of 777X development, including our rigorous test program,” Boeing said in a November 4 statement to AIN. “Our team remains focused on executing this comprehensive series of tests and conditions to demonstrate the safety, reliability, and performance of the airplane. With more than 600 flights and 1,700 hours to date, we remain pleased with how the airplane continues to perform. We also are working to mature our documentation and analysis ahead of certification testing, in coordination with the FAA.”