The highly anticipated Boeing 777X is set to be a game-changing aircraft. With high capacity, efficient operation, and two engines, it has been ordered by several airlines to replace their aging and inefficient large aircraft. Looking forward, is this the end for such large aircraft, or could things continue after the 777X?
The end of the four-engine jumbo
If it wasn’t clear before 2020, it certainly is now. We have likely seen the end of the large four-engine, or two-deck, aircraft. 2020 brought increased retirements of both the A380 and the Boeing 747 as airlines looked to streamline their operations.
The A380 had already seen the end of production announced in 2019, amidst changing airlines’ preferences and difficulties in its operation. And Boeing announced in July 2020 that production would end when the final 747-8 orders are complete.
The slowdown in aviation in 2020 hit these large aircraft the hardest. As Simple Flying reported in July 2020, around 91% of 747s and 97% of A380s were grounded. As aircraft have returned to the air, the challenges of filling such large aircraft have been ever more apparent.
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The 777X – on its way but delayed
But the 777X is different. It offers high capacity but efficient operation. It addresses many of the problems faced by the 747 and the A380. Its new GE9X engines offer higher power but reduced operating cost. And the folding wingtips bring the efficiency gains of a large wingspan, without the airport limitations that the A380 suffered.
The 777X program has seen several delays, with the first airline delivery now expected in 2022. But there have been few cancellations or deferrals from its customers, with Cathay Pacific the only airline to delay as of October 2020. More deferrals may come in the future, with airlines struggling financially and the potential for reduced demand. But the aircraft is still well-ordered (350 as of September 2020, according to Boeing) and a much-anticipated replacement for aging widebodies.
Will we see another large jet?
Going forward, will there be a need for another large aircraft after the 777X? Or, more importantly, will a manufacturer make the huge investment necessary to develop one?
The simple answer is that it is too early to tell how the recovery in aviation will affect demand for new aircraft. It is certainly likely to be some time before manufacturers are ready to market a new large aircraft, given the slowdown and delays in orders that have come in 2020.
It is also highly unlikely that we will see a new ‘extra-large’ or two-deck aircraft developed. The A380 has shown the problems in this, both in the limited routes that it can operate and its inefficiencies for cargo services. Plus, such a heavy airframe would still likely need four engines, and airlines are unlikely to want to return to that as they focus more on efficiency.
But it would be wrong to rule out the possibility of a larger, single deck, twin-engine aircraft. Boeing promises some great technical advances with the 777X, and if a larger aircraft could be equally efficient, it could prove popular. Cargo ability is an important consideration too, and a single deck aircraft will handle this better.
The 777-10 or an Airbus A350 stretch
There has, in fact, already been discussion about a larger version of the new 777X. Boeing Commercial CEO Ray Conner discussed the possibility of a stretched 777-10 at the Farnborough Airshow in 2016 (according to a report in FlightGlobal). This would add four rows to the 777-9, taking capacity to a huge 450.
And there has also been discussion about an A350-1000 stretch, dubbed the A350-2000 by the industry. Again, this would most likely be a four-row stretch.
Both of these stretches would be expensive to develop (and a totally new aircraft even more so, of course). There will also be challenges with range limitations and possibly more powerful engines needed. But, as we have seen with other development, technological advances will likely make this easier over time.
Don’t forget China
As a final thought on where the next large aircraft may come from, consider the development currently underway in China and Russia. Manufacturers in both countries are taking on Boeing and Airbus with new aircraft developments. We have already seen narrowbody aircraft launched, including the Chinese C919, ARJ21, and Russian Irkut MC-21 (so far, only the ARJ21 has entered airline service).
The two countries are coming together to build their first widebody. The CRAIC CR929 is in development and should offer a capacity of 261 to 291 passengers with a range of around 12,000 kilometers. There is a larger version planned, too, with a capacity up to 320.
The CR929 falls short of the 777X and A350 (it competes more with the 787 or A330). But there is a strong chance China and Russia will continue this and build bigger. Even if just considering potential demand in those countries, there are plenty of opportunities.
CRAIC has already set a goal of securing 10% of the market for widebody aircraft, estimated to be some 9,100 widebodies, over the next 20 years. And if it targets the larger passenger or freighter market, it could expand this.
What do you think the future hold for large aircraft? Will we see a further stretched 777X or A350? Or could an entirely new aircraft be developed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.