The behemoth Boeing 777X has taken its first flight and is gearing up to launch in 2021. But the giant aircraft with its iconic folding wingtips will have to outpace its nearest competitor, the Airbus A350 if it is to gain market share. Which one is better? Let’s take a look.
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Introducing the two contenders
The Boeing 777X is the world’s largest twin jet ever built. Its enormous engines and unprecedented wingspan promise to bring unbeatable fuel efficiency, and to usher in a new era of high capacity, long-range flying. Although it has now taken flight, it is still in the testing phase and won’t arrive with airlines until 2021.
The Airbus A350 is set to be the largest widebody aircraft built by the European plane maker, once the A380 ends production early next year. Manufactured using advanced composite materials, it’s the lightest widebody in current production. Airbus says this leads to 25% lower operating costs and a quieter, more efficient operation.
Which is more popular with airlines?
The Boeing 777X, although progressing nicely through its testing schedule, has not yet been delivered to any airlines. Conversely, the Airbus A350 has been in use since 2015, and there are more than 360 of the type in operation around the world.
The 777X is initially being developed as the 777-9, although Boeing does have plans for a smaller 777-8 version further down the line. There are also vague plans to stretch the fuselage for a 777-10X if there is enough demand in the future.
The A350 is available in two flavors – the A350-900, which was the launch type, and the A350-1000, which came into service in 2018.
Boeing 777X orders
At its peak, the 777X had acquired 344 firm orders. However, as of January this year, this had dropped to 308. 25 of these are from Etihad Airways, which has repeatedly said it will not take more than six of the type due to fleet restructuring.
Of the 308 orders published by Boeing, Leeham News says that 32 are for the 777-8. However, the publication also believes that around 20 of these are likely to be canceled. The future of the 777-8 production remains in the balance, although Boeing has said it is still committed to the program.
Airbus A350 orders
The Airbus A350-900 entered service in January 2015 with Qatar Airways. Its bigger brother, the A350-1000, took its first revenue flight on February 24th, 2018, with Qatar Airways also the launch customer. Since then, the type has been delivered to 34 different airlines around the world with Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific among the biggest operators.
According to Airbus’ latest order sheet, it has received a total of 930 orders for the widebody aircraft. 362 have been delivered, most of which are the smaller -900 type. Here’s how it breaks down (correct as of the end of April 2020).
So in terms of which has achieved the most orders, the A350 is strides ahead of the 777X. However, this is something of an unfair comparison, as it has been offered for sale for far longer overall, and has, therefore, had more time to acquire significant orders.
A better measure would be to look at where the A350 was in terms of orders when it was at a similar stage of development. With the 777X due to launch next year, we’d need to look back at where the A350 order book was in 2014. At that time, it had accrued a net total of 445 orders, according to historical data, which was 137 more than the 777X by the same point in its program.
Verdict: The A350 wins; it sold faster than the 777X
Both the A350 and the 777X have some incredible, next-generation technology on board. While many of the improvements seen in the two widebodies are directed towards fuel efficiency, passenger comfort has played its part in the designs too.
Technology onboard the 777X
The 777X will be the largest twin-engine jet aircraft in the world. Building on the success of its predecessor, the 777, and employing some of the advancements seen in the Dreamliner, its Boeing’s most ambitious aircraft to date. Some of the key improvements include:
- Composite wings: The use of composite materials in the wing construction allows the 777X to have the biggest wingspan of any commercial passenger aircraft.
- Folding tips: To keep the 777X in a lower size category and not to limit the airports it can use, Boeing has designed it with folding wingtips.
- Biggest engines: The giant GE9X engines are all-new and designed specifically for the 777X. They are the biggest aircraft engines in the world, and the most efficient, making use of composite fan technology for more power and lower fuel burn.
- Aerodynamic efficiency: The raked wingtips, huge wingspan and all-new engines add up to significant fuel savings and greater efficiency.
- Cabin comforts: Inspired by the Dreamliner, the cabin of the 777X will be wider, with large windows, optimized pressurization, mood lighting and improved architecture for a more comfortable passenger experience.
The A350, despite its earlier release to the market, also pushed the boundaries with technologies on board.
- Lightweight construction: The A350 is made from 53% composite materials, which are lighter and more durable than traditional aluminum. It also has titanium and aluminum alloys to make it super light and robust.
- Adaptive wings: Taking inspiration from nature, the A350’s wings actually ‘flap’ while in flight. This is not so much as you’d notice, but the small movements allowed in the wings make for reduced drag and lower fuel burn.
- Quiet engines: The Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines are quieter and more fuel-efficient than its current competitors.
- Aerodynamic efficiency: Like the 777X, Airbus worked to make the A350 as aerodynamic as possible. Specifically, it employed computational fluid dynamics (CFD) in the development of the Airbus A350XWB, a technique that improves the external shape for minimum drag.
- Cabin comforts: State of the art air conditioning and mood lighting, as well as intelligent pressurization, work together to reduce jetlag. Straight sidewalls, a wider cabin body and vast amounts of storage space all add up to a comfortable passenger experience.
Verdict: It’s a draw; both jets employ the latest and best technological improvements
Capacity, range and fuel efficiency
Both aircraft offer immense seating and cargo capacity, but the 777X is the larger of the two.
In a typical two-class configuration, the A350 seats between 315 and 369 passengers. The maximum capacity for the two variants, the -900 and the -1000, is 440 and 480, respectively.
The 777X, although not yet proven in the flesh, is pitched by Boeing to seat 384 on the 777-8 and 426 on the 777-9 in a two-class configuration. There’s no maximum passenger capacity published yet, but it’s sure to be greater than the A350.
In terms of layout, the A350 typically sports a nine abreast configuration in economy, with a usual 18-inch width for each passenger. However, some airlines have squeezed an extra row in the cabin, reducing seat width to a squeezy 16.5 inches.
The 777X will have 10 abreast in the typical layout. This is the same as the existing 777, but the broader cabin of the 777X should allow for a more comfortable ride.
In terms of cargo, the A350-1000 has a payload of 68 tons and a capacity of 44 LD3 containers. The smaller -900 has a payload of 53.3 tons and a capacity of 36 LD3 containers. To compare, the 777-9 will have a cargo capacity of 48 LD3 containers. Its payload has not yet been published.
Another key figure to compare is the maximum takeoff weight, or MTOW. This is something Airbus had an issue with in regard to the A380; the plane was so heavy that its MTOW was exceeded before the available cargo space was filled; hence it was never built as a freighter variant.
For the 777-9, the MTOW has been pitched at 775,000 lb, while the Airbus has 617,295 lb for the -900 and 696,661 lb for the -1000. However, it’s important to recognize the weight difference of the aircraft itself. Here are the published weights of these aircraft, along with a few more for comparison:
- Airbus A350-1000: 284,000 lb (129,000 kg)
- Boeing 777-9: 400,000 lb (181,400 kg)
- Boeing 787: 285,000 lb (129,000 kg)
- Airbus A330: 268,675 lb (121,870 kg)
Although its clearly a big and heavy plane, the A350 shaves huge amounts of weight off its frame thanks to the use of modern materials.
While the real test of this measure won’t come until the 777-9 has operated some flights, we can make some assumptions based on the published fuel capacity and range.
For the 777-9, its fuel capacity is 350,410 lb, for a maximum range of 7,285 nm. For a very rough calculation, that means it’s burning around 48 lb of fuel per nautical mile.
The A350-1000 has a fuel capacity of 274,808 lb and a maximum range of 8,700 nm. This equates to a burn of around 32 lb per nautical mile.
Of course, that’s not the whole story, because what airlines are concerned with is the fuel burn per passenger. Taking that into account (with a typical two-class layout), the A350s burn per seat is 0.09 lb per nautical mile. The 777-9, in comparison, comes out at 0.11 lb per seat per nautical mile.
Naturally, each planemaker considers their widebody to be more efficient than their competitors, and there are far too many variables in terms of sector length, loaded weight and suchlike to make a definitive comparison. As they say, the proof will be in the pudding.
Verdict: It’s a draw; the 777X’s higher capacity could make it a winner, but the A350s lower unladen weight might just edge it
Other vital statistics
If you love your numbers, here’s a quick rundown of all the vital statistics side-by-side for easy comparison. For the sake of simplicity, this is the 777-9 against the A350-1000.
|Length||242 ft 1 in (73.78 m)||251 ft 8 in (76.72 m)|
|Wingspan||212 ft 5 in (64.75 m)||238 ft 10 in (72.80 m)|
|Wing area||4,768 ft2 (443.00 m2)||5,562 ft2 (516.70 m2)|
|Height||56 ft (17.08 m)||64 ft 1 in (19.53 m)|
|Thrust per engine||97,100 lbf (432 kN)||105,000 lbf (467 kN)|
|Total thrust||194,200 lbf (864 kN)||210,000 lbf (934 kN)|
|MTOW||679,000 lbs (308,000 kgs)||775,000 lbs (351,534 kgs)|
|Range||7,992 nm (14,800 km)||7,290 nm (13,500 km)|
|Capacity (pax)||369 passengers||426 passengers|
The published prices for each jet are as follows:
- A350: The A350-1000 is $366.5m, while the A350-900 is $317.4m
- 777X: The 777-9 is being marketed at $442.2m, while the 777-8 will be $410.2m
Of course, airlines often achieve significant discounts on the list price, particularly if they are placing multi-plane orders. However, the 777-9 would need to be discounted by more than $70m before it costs the same as a non-discounted A350-1000.
Verdict: The A350 wins; it’s much more affordable
The faceoff between the A350 and the 777X will be interesting to see. On paper, both are great aircraft, with similar range and passenger capacity. Will the larger size of the 777X be enough to sway airlines away from the tried and tested Airbus? As of now, the order books suggest not.
In our opinion, the lightweight, agile and adaptable A350, with its significantly lower purchase cost, will be a tough offering for Boeing to beat. However, for a mission where the maximum capacity is desired, Airbus just can’t offer anything as big as the 777-9.
We vote the A350 as the winner, but this is a subjective matter. What’s your opinion? Let us know in the comments.