Boeing 777-8 Timeline Could Depend On Project Sunrise Order

A Boeing executive has indicated that the timeline for the entry into service of the forthcoming 777-8 is somewhat dependent on customer demand. With only 45 orders on the books, it seems Boeing is waiting for a big order to drop before committing to any sort of timeframe. A big order, let’s say, from a certain Australian airline looking to start the world’s longest ever flights?

The 777-8 hasn’t had many orders. Photo: Boeing

777-8 timeline dependent on customer demand

Earlier today, a Boeing executive told Reuters that the timeline for the 777-8 entry to service was somewhat dependent on customer demand. Reuters suggested that the project is likely waiting for a final decision from Australian airline Qantas on its choice of plane for the Project Sunrise flights.

Qantas 787
A big order from Qantas could secure the future of the -8. Photo: Bahnfrend via Wikimedia

Darren Hulst, a senior marketing executive at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, is reported to have said,

“Our timetable on the 777-8 obviously is still under consideration for when it actually enters service. But it is really more of when (we have) the combination of the demand from our customers and how it aligns with the design and production for the 777X as a program.”

While he wouldn’t be drawn on whether Qantas’ decision was directly affecting the timeline of the 777X, it’s clear that the new aircraft is wanting for more orders.

A Boeing spokesperson told Simple Flying,

“We reviewed our development program schedule and the needs of our current 777X customers and decided to adjust the schedule. The adjustment reduces risk in our development program, ensuring a more seamless transition to the 777-8.

“We continue to engage with our current and potential customers on how we can meet their fleet needs. This includes our valued customer Qantas.

“Finally, we remain committed to the 777-8, which will be the most flexible commercial jet in the world and offer our customers optimal range and payload.”

Only 45 orders so far

While the 777-9 variant has seen lots of love from at least nine airlines so far, the 777-8 has been something of a slow burner. To date, just 45 airframes have been ordered, compared to the 280 of its bigger brother.

These 45 are split between Emirates with 35 and Qatar with just 10. Emirates’ CEO has previously floated the idea that perhaps some or all of these orders could be converted to 787s; if this did happen, it would leave the 777-8 program in serious jeopardy.

Boeing 777X
The 777-9 has had a solid stream of orders; not so the 777-8. Photo: Boeing

Project Sunrise will see direct, nonstop flights between Sydney and London or New York. The trip would take around 20 hours, and would take the crown as the world’s longest flight in history. But such a special flight requires a special plane, and for that Qantas has reportedly been weighing up its options between the A350 and the Boeing 777X.

Specifically, Qantas would be likely to be more interested in the smaller 777-8 variant, as this would allow for the additional range required for these long flights. CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, has previously said he will make a decision on the plane by the end of 2019. With that deadline just weeks away, Boeing and Airbus are undoubtedly on tenterhooks waiting for the outcome of their efforts.

At this stage, it looks like the Project Sunrise order from Qantas could not just be a feather in their cap for Boeing, it could even be the lifeline that saves the program.

When is the 777-8 coming?

So far, we know that Boeing is set on an early 2020 timeline for the 777-9 first flight. This will, of course, depend on resolving various issues with engines and structural integrity. However, even if we do see the aircraft take off in the early new year, there’s still a lot of red tape to get through before it can enter service.

The first flight of the 777-9 is targeted for early next year. Photo: Boeing

And that’s just the 777-9, the first variant of the family. The 777-8 was originally planned to enter service around two years after its bigger brother, but this was pushed back in August as the planemaker focused on resolving issues with the -9 variant.

While Joyce has said that Boeing has put forward a ‘compelling offer’ to compensate for delays to the 777-8, right now it looks like a question of who is waiting for who. As much as Boeing has its own set of challenges to deal with, so things at Qantas aren’t looking as rosy as they could.

Putting Project Sunrise in the shade

Despite planning for a number of real-life tests of the ultra-long-haul experience, Qantas is still on the fence about Project Sunrise. Reportedly CEO Alan Joyce will not commit to going ahead with the flights until the pilots union steps into line.

The Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) represents Qantas pilots, and has flagged some concerns over crew fatigue and safety in the context of such a long flight. While they’re keen to negotiate with Joyce over the plans, the Qantas boss is not an easy man to bargain with.

Alan Joyce has a history of taking on the unions. Photo: Qantas.

Back in 2012, Joyce actually shut the entire airline down rather than broker deals with heavy handed unions threatening to strike. It seems he hasn’t mellowed in the last few years, and is prepared to shelve Project Sunrise entirely if a compatible EBA cannot be secured.

There are so many variables in this situation, it’s impossible to predict which way things will go. Qantas could sort out its issues and make a big order for the 777-8 within weeks, or they could pull out of Project Sunrise entirely, spurring the cancellation of the 777-8 program altogether. Only time will tell.