Op-Ed: Is the Boeing 777X Too Big?

Op-Ed: Is the Boeing 777X Too Big?

It’s not, but people have asked.

How big is too big?

Many analysts are of the opinion that the “sweet-spot” of the market for widebody airliners is approximately the size of the 777-200/ER to 777-300/ER and not a seat bigger. They argue that the A380 was a failure (which it wasn’t), the 747-8I was a miserable one, though. It is said that the, comparatively soft, early sales of the Next Generation 777 prior to launch are because of its capacity.

They see the A350-900 and 787 flying off the order book and assume that no one wants any more seats. Well. Here’s the problem with that. Other than 747-400 replacement, most aircraft that have been ordered recently for purposes outside of expansion were to replace the earliest 777-200s, A340s, and sometimes A340s. All of those exist within the seating capacity close to or at that of the 787-9 and 10 or A350-900 to A350-1000 if you want slightly more capacity.

None of these airliners could comfortably handle over four-hundred passengers. Which, yes the 77W can. Thing is, the 77W is now getting on in years, and using it as a VLA replacement has only really become a standard within the latter half of its product life-cycle.

Boeing’s argument, and mine, in favor of the 777 stretch for both the 8 and the 9 is that when it comes time to replace the 77W, the last of the 747-400, and maybe even A380 – people are going to need something with a comfortably large capacity.

There, however, can only be one – as the showdown between Airbus and Boeing in that market class has shown us. Boeing knew this, so they moved first as they had the development cost advantage. With Airbus saying they have no desire to produce an A350-1100 or similarly designated stretch, Boeing was right. They now own this market. A market that by its very nature can never be as large as the lucrative market served by the 787 and A350.

But if it’s not too big, why are there so few orders?

That’s changing. British Airways came out of nowhere, it seemed, to pick up 17 of the -9 with options for more. For, you guessed it, a 747-400 replacement.

ANA has ordered 20, because they needed something larger than the 777-300/ER. They also were an early 77W customer and by the time the 777-9 enters into service, replacement can be an option.

Cathay needs the range and capacity. Lufthansa, too needs to begin replacing their 747-400s and A340-600s.

All the customers that have ordered the 777-9 outside of the Middle East 3 have chosen it either for capacity equality or growth.

All of these airlines have capital-shy boards. They won’t order the 777-9 until they are absolutely convinced they need something in that segment. Boeing doesn’t mind because most of these airlines are likely talking with Boeing about potential orders. Boeing is also secure because it’s not like a customer looking for an aircraft in that size-class can call Airbus. It’s a lock, and it’s not a matter of if, but it’s a matter of when.

The 777X-9 as seen before its employee only roll-out on Wednesday March 13, 2019. Image provided by: Boeing

What if it’s not?

It is.

But if it’s not. Well. Here’s the thing. The 777-X program has been a low-risk end-of-cycle upgrade. While the, folding-tip, composite wing is a massive technological change. It’s not a clean-sheet design. Boeing will be fine. They don’t stand to lose much even if the 777-X garners no or few orders after this article publishes. They’re lucky. A great completion to an aircraft program that became a legend. A little more cash in their war chest to develop a replacement when the time comes.

But the ME3 are shaky?

How does that have anything to do with capacity?

It doesn’t, and they aren’t. People assume that the ME3 dictated the capacity and MGTOW of both the 777-8 and the 777-9. It is, wrongly, assumed that the -9 is even more of an aircraft designed for them than the -8. They assume that the massive order book from Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar are imaginary.

It’s a dilemma, yes. But here’s the thing. If the ME3 all disappeared tomorrow, everyone else would need the capacity of the 777-9 tomorrow. Moreover, only one of the ME3 is really in any long-term danger – and were it to disappear, it’d be a merger with Emirates, which means the 777-9 order would simply find a new home a few miles down the street at Al Maktoum international.

When people complain about the ME3 and the 777-9, they really mean they are complaining about the 777-8; an aircraft only they want and only they could want. A 777-200LR, but bigger – though not that much larger. The 777-8 is an aircraft entirely for customers who want to fly 17 hour flights with full pax and cargo, or close to it.

Only three airlines really do that with any regularity.

The 777-200LR never sold that well. Thing is, offering a low-cost-to-develop niche airliner keeps people from defecting to Airbus. Unfortunately, it also saves Airbus money so they don’t have to design their own niche airliner.

Really, if the ME3 are at all shaky and cut orders – it’s good for Boeing either way, unless they accidentally put the entirety of their 777-X dreams on the 777-8.

The 777-9 breaks cover after emerging from paint. Image provided by: Boeing

But Bernie, what about Project Sunrise?

Qantas is choosing an airliner that they can fly from Sydney to Heathrow, or Sydney to JFK. Many suspect Boeing is shopping them either a mildly modified 777-8. Airbus is shopping them a heavily modified A350-1000ULR.

Really though, why does a niche order for a specific set of routes for one airline have any bearing on whether or not a program is going to be successful.

Can y’all stop asking?

QF is going to order the modified 350-1000 anyway because they’re going to want some degree of type rating commonality and their current board so heavily favors frequency over capacity, an airline that should be a lock for a very large 777-9 order is going to order even more A350s to meet their new dream.

Final Thoughts…

The 777-9, at least, is the perfect size for the coming 777-300 and 777-300/ER replacement cycle. Boeing did not jump the gun, they chose a low cost option for a maximized airframe that will pay them dividends over the future.

The order book appears small because we are just at the beginning of this program, a program that just rolls out this Wednesday (March 13, 2019).

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