The 777 has been a great success for Boeing and the best-selling widebody to date. It was launched in 1994 and is now entering its third generation with the new 777X. It was originally developed as a clean-sheet design to capitalize on the improvements in twin-engine performance and takes this concept further as the 777X becomes the largest twin ever to fly.
Launching a new aircraft
The Boeing 777 came about as a new aircraft to fill the gap between the 767 and the 747. By the 1980s, Boeing had developed a solid lineup of aircraft. The Boeing 737 had become the dominant short-haul aircraft, and it offered a range of longer-range aircraft – the 757, 767, and the 747.
The 747 was the top choice for long-haul routes, with twin-engine aircraft previously limited in operation. This changed with the introduction of ETOPS rules, with twinjets able to operate further from a diversion airport. Restrictions were changed in 1985, and the first ETOPS 120 (allowing routes up to 120 minutes from a diversion airport) flight was with a TWA Boeing 767 from Boston to Paris.
This opened up transatlantic routes to the 767 (and even the 757). Just as the 747 had changed airline economics with its high capacity offering, this changed things again with more efficient, lower operating cost, aircraft serving longer routes.
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Improving the 767
The 767 worked well for lower capacity routes (and allowed new routes to be launched). But there was a gap in the market now for a twin-engine aircraft with higher capacity. Airbus took advantage of this with its joint A330 and A340 project. The A330 was the largest twin-engine yet when it was completed in 1992. It was not long, though, before the 777 was launched and took over this.
Boeing originally proposed upgrading the 767 to serve this market. The 767X would offer a stretched fuselage and larger wings. But airlines rejected this, wanting a wider fuselage and improved operating costs, leading to a new, clean-sheet design.
Developing the 777
Boeing launched the 777 project in 1989, with the first aircraft flying in 1994 and entering service in 1995.
The 777 was developed in close collaboration with eight airlines – All Nippon Airways, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines, United Airlines, and Qantas. All except Qantas went on to order the aircraft.
This collaboration established the capacity and other specifications to be used and ideal variations. US airlines, for example, preferred a shorter fuselage aircraft, while others, including ANA, wanted longer. And British Airways at least wanted a longer-range version. These preferences were all reflected in the initial 777 design.
The 777 was Boeing’s first aircraft to rely heavily on computer design during development. While there were some initial mockups, Boeing later claimed that it was the first aircraft “that didn’t need its kinks worked out on an expensive physical mockup plane.”
Construction at Everett
Construction took place (as it still does) at Boeing’s Everett facility. There was a significant expansion to add two new production lines. All widebodies before the 787 were built there.
It was notable, though, for subcontracting large amounts to other companies, including internationally. This concept was taken much further later with Boeing’s next clean-sheet design, the 787. Parts manufactured were smaller and easier to transport than they would be for the 787 (where entire composite fuselage sections, and the wing, are built overseas), requiring the use of the Boeing Dreamlifters for transport.
For the original 777, construction took place in several countries. In Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries built fuselage panels, and Fuji Heavy Industries the center wing section. And in Australia, Aerospace Technologies of Australia built the rudder and Hawker de Havilland the elevators. Boeing later acquired both these companies.
The first generation 777s
United Airlines was the first airline to order the 777, with an $11 billion order for 34 aircraft (and options for 34 more) in 1990.
The first 777 was unveiled in April 1994 and made its first flight on June 12th. This original 777 (the 777-200) was the smaller of two variants, designed to meet the needs of US airlines. It entered service with United Airlines and operated its first commercial flight on June 7th, 1995.
Over the next three years, Boeing launched two more variants. Overall, the three first generation (or classic) variants are:
- 777-200: The initial, shorter variant, entering service in 1995 with United Airlines.
- 777-200ER: This offered increased range (and payload) and entered service with British Airways in February 1997.
- 777-300: Boeing stretched the fuselage by just over 10 meters, taking the typical three-class capacity up from 305 to 368 (maximum exit limits are 313 and 396). It entered service with Cathay Pacific in May 1998.
By 1997, 777 orders had risen to 323 aircraft from 25 airlines – it was already well on the way to being a strong success for Boeing.
The second-generation 777 – extending the range
Boeing always had the intention to increase the range of the 777. Early proposals looked at shortening the 777-200 to develop a lower capacity but higher range variant (similar to what was done for the 747SP). This was dropped, though, in favor of keeping the capacity.
In the late 1990s, Boeing began the development of these next-generation aircraft. It kept commonality with the same fuselage and cockpit design but increased the wingspan (by almost four meters). Engines were also switched to the newly developed GE90 engines. There was no longer a choice of engines as with the first generation.
Two passenger models
The first aircraft to be developed was the 777-300ER, with an initial order from Air France. It entered service in 2004. This would combine the size of the 777-300 with the range of the 777-200ER by increasing the maximum take-off weight. The fuselage and landing gear are also strengthened. This matched the long-haul needs of many airlines, and the 777-3000ER has gone on to be by far the most sold 777 variant.
The 777-300ER was joined by the ultra-long-range 777-200LR in 2006. This kept the length of the 777-200 but used the same improvements as the -3000ER to allow increased weight. With additional fuel tanks, it extended the range to almost 16,000 kilometers. It entered service with Pakistan International Airlines in 2006.
It has not been a great success, though, with only 60 aircraft delivered. Its main problem was, in fact, too much range. It achieved its range through extra fuel – this made it heavy and expensive to operate on long routes. Newer aircraft, such as the 787 or A350, achieve longer ranges instead through engine and efficiency improvements.
The 777F cargo plane
As part of this second generation, Boeing launched the 777F freighter model. This took advantage of the upgraded engines and increased MTOW to carry freight payload. Critically, its maximum payload was only slightly lower than that of the 747-200F (104 tonnes compared to 110 tonnes), so it made a good choice for retiring older Boeing freighters.
The 747-400F offers a higher payload and the 747-8 freighter even more. The 777 and 747 together have ensured Boeing continued dominance in the freighter market. There is a chance coming up now for Airbus to challenge this with a possible A350 freighter (it missed the chance with the A380 when it dropped the planned freighter version), but we will have to wait and see.
The third generation 777X
The 777 story is far from over, with the 777X now being tested and due to enter service in the coming years. This will be the largest and highest capacity twin-engine aircraft to date.
The 777X was first proposed in 2011, with a targeting flying date of 2018, as a larger, more efficient successor to the 777-300ER. It keeps a lot in common with the previous 777 family members and introduces some key new features. Most importantly, it retains the same metal fuselage construction.
The Boeing 787 (and the A350) are new clean-sheet designs that have introduced composite fuselage construction to reduce overall weight significantly. The 777X has the same fuselage but has increased its width by around four inches through thinner walls and more efficient insulation.
There will be two versions of the 777X, the 777-9 and the smaller 777-8. The 777-9 (the first to launch) offers a capacity of up to 426 (in a two-class configuration, according to Boeing data). With a length of 76 meters, it is the longest commercial jet to date The smaller 777-8 will offer a capacity of around 384.
The smaller 777-8 will compete well against the A350-1000. But the 777-9 is really in a twin-engine category of its own and takes the capacity of twins much closer to quadjets,
Plenty of new features
Despite its commonality with earlier 777 types, there is a lot to be excited about with the 777X. It will achieve more efficient operation, but with high capacity and range with new engines and larger wings.
New engines. It will feature the largest and most powerful engines to date. The new General Electric GE9X engine features carbon fiber construction and fewer fan blades to reduce weight despite the larger size. After several delays, the GE9X engines finally received FAA certification in September 2020.
Folding wingtips. The larger wings on the 777X are critical for its performance and efficiency. But large wing can cause operational problems at many airports – a problem faced by the A380. The 777X wingtips fold on the ground, reducing its wingspan by around five meters. This keeps it in a lower aerodrome category (E rather than the highest level of F for the A380) and expands its operating possibilities.
Entering service in 2022 or later
There have been several setbacks to the development of the 777X. There were initial delays due to engine issues and structural testing. And further delays have been incurred due to the slowdown during the pandemic. Boeing’s original plan was to have it in airline service by 2021 – it is not clear now when it will. The aircraft is currently undergoing test flights.
In January 2021, Boeing stated it would not deliver the first jet until late 2023. In an interview with Simple Flying in April, Emirates’ President Sir Tim Clark referred to the Boeing 777X program being “in a state of disarray,” indicating delivery could be as late as 2025. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker has stated he anticipates the first 777X arriving at the airline in 2022.
A 777-10X or a Freighter?
The full story of the 777X could still change. While only the two passenger variants have so far been confirmed, there is the possibility of more for the 777 family. A possible further stretch to a 777-10X would take passenger capacity up to around 450. Nothing has been confirmed by Boeing. Such a stretch technically should not be too difficult, but the decision will undoubtedly depend on airline demand and whether Airbus revisits the idea of an A350 stretch.
And just as it did with the second generation 777s, Boeing could develop a freighter version of the 777X. Boeing has discussed this as a possibility before, with a freighter based on the smaller 777-8. And Qatar Airways has expressed interest in being the launch customer.
With over 2,200 orders to date, the Boeing 777 has been the most successful widebody. But we are only just seeing the start of its next generation, with plenty of life left in it. Feel free to discuss more about this aircraft, in the past or looking forward, in the comments.