The 777X is Boeing’s latest widebody offering and its largest ever twin-engine aircraft. The plane is slated to enter service in late 2023, following its first flight in January 2020. However, the plane has also seen a fair share of challenges over the last eight years as well. Here’s the story of the 777X so far and its future.
The next generation
Boeing first began firming up plans for the 777X in 2011, as a direct response to the Airbus A350 family. Originally, the planes were planned to come in three variants, each meant to replace a predecessor 777 plane.
The 777-9 would replace the 777-300ER and lengthen the fuselage, competing with the A350-1000. The 777-8 would replace the aging 777-200ERs and compete with the successful A350-900. The final variant was the 777-8LR, a replacement for the ultra-long-range 777-200LR and an alternative to the A350-900ULR.
By 2013, Boeing had narrowed down the 777X variants to just two, dropping the 8LX from its lineup. This was likely due to low demand for the original -200LR and a limited market for future orders as well. Indeed, even the A350-900ULR only saw seven orders from one carrier: Singapore Airlines.
The 777X was officially unveiled in 2013 and notched its first order in September, with Lufthansa ordering 34 777-9s. Soon after, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, and several more airlines announced multi-billion-dollar commitments to the jet. The biggest boost came in July 2014, when Emirates announced a mega-order for 150 777Xs, valued at an eye-watering $56 billion at the time.
So what makes the 777X so special, and what changes has Boeing made over the second generation of 777s?
Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.
When it comes to the 777X, Boeing had made several design changes but also left some elements alone. For instance, the latest aircraft will retain the original metal fuselage of the original 777s, eschewing newer carbon composite designs seen on the 787 and A350. However, this is largely where the similarities end.
The most unique aspect of the 777X is undoubtedly its wing design. These new wings are built with carbon composites and are 71.75 meters in length (235.4 ft). This allows for more aerodynamic efficiency, some amount of wing flex, and significant fuel savings. However, undoubtedly the most recognizable feature of the wings is the folding wingtips.
The 6.9 meter (22.6 ft) folding wingtips reduce the huge wingspan from 71.75 meters (235.4 ft) to 64.85 meters (212.7 ft), the exact same as the previous 777s. This means airports will not need to redesign gates to accommodate the 777X, and it can fit standard Code E airport specifications and not require Code F gates like the A380.
Another major change to the aircraft has been the addition of the GE9X engines. These new engines offer a record-breaking 110,000 lbf of thrust, making them the most powerful engines in the world. Designed specifically for the 777X family, these engines alone deliver a 10% fuel saving over the GE90s and are the center of efficiency improvements for the plane.
The GE9X will also offer 5% better fuel efficiency than any other twin-aisle engine offering, beating out of the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB. With the lowest NOx emissions and less noise, these engines are a gamechanger for the 777X program.
In addition to these changes, the 777X also features a host of new avionics and several other flight systems. Overall, Boeing is promising to deliver its highest capacity, lowest fuel burn per seat aircraft it has ever built. So are airlines buying it?
The market for the 777X was clearly defined before 2020. As airlines began retiring their aging four-engine jets like the A340, 747s, and A380s, the 777X provided a neat alternative for high capacity operations. Eventually, these planes would also replace the last generation of 777s, which are quickly showing their age.
Indeed, nearly all of the early 777X customers cited the plane as replacements for their four-engined planes. However, the pandemic has shifted this dynamic significantly. No longer are airlines looking to buy 400+ seater passenger planes at a time when long-haul flying is at negligible levels.
As a full aviation recovery remains up in the air, experts don’t predict 2019 levels to return before 2024 at the earliest. This means airlines will have little use for new high-capacity aircraft until traffic returns. However, this might actually be good news for Boeing, which is dealing with its own issues with the 777X.
When Boeing announced the 777X, it placed the delivery date for the type in 2018 or 2019. However, things have not gone smoothly, to say the least. The program has faced a series of setbacks in the early days of testing. Boeing also slowed down development in the mid-2010s to focus on the 737 MAX and 787 instead.
Issues occurred with the development of GE9X engines and structural testing. This slowly pushed back the date of the first flight from 2016/17 all the way to 2019. Airlines weren’t happy with these changes and many shuffled their orders to maintain fleet modernization plans.
The most dramatic issue came in September 2019, when the fuselage of 777-9 was torn apart during a stress test. This set back the process by a few months, pushing the first test flight into 2020, far behind schedule.
When the 777X made its first flight in late January 2020, the storm was setting in over the aviation industry. In a matter of just two months, COVID-19 crushed travel demand and any appetite for new planes. This meant another series of delays for the 777X.
Currently, Boeing is plotting the first delivery of the 777-9 for late 2023, just as the aviation industry hopes to bounce back completely. However, there continue to be ongoing certification issues that could push the timeline even further. Despite all the setbacks, Boeing remains confident about the 777X program, with CEO Dave Calhoun recently saying,
“Now, when I think about the airplane [777X], this airplane is going to have in its category an enormous cost advantage per seat, per volumetric numbers for freight and there will always be routes that want an airplane of this size and scale…It’ll have a 40- or 50-year run and I think it’ll be one of the great runs of all time. I have lots of confidence in it. It’s often forgotten. Oh, it got delayed. Do they really want to do it? It’s quite the opposite. We love it. We want to do it.”
For now, airlines remain committed to at least 320 777Xs when deliveries officially begin in 2023. If all goes well until then, remains to be seen.
What do you think about the past and future of the 777X program? Are you looking forward to flying it? Let us know in the comments!