Why Qantas Never Ordered The Boeing 777

During the design process of the Boeing 777, the aerospace manufacturer consulted with eight airlines to build the ‘perfect’ medium haul aircraft. They wanted to bridge the gap between the 767 and their 747 jumbo jet.

The eight airlines were All Nippon Airways, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines, United Airlines and, Qantas.

Seven airlines would go on to buy the Boeing 777 once it was complete; all except Qantas.

Qantas
Three Qantas 747s sit in Heathrow. Photo: Wikimedia

Why did Boeing ask airlines for help?

According to a report by the New York Times, Boeing never really consulted with Airlines before. They would show one or two airlines the almost finished product, but ultimately preferred an ‘off-the-shelf’ style of sales.

With the 777, Boeing decided to take a different route and include airlines in the design phase. The economy was in a slump at the time and Boeing needed to sell aircraft, not just for the moment, but that would serve airlines for decades to come. Hence, an idea was sparked to offer airlines the perfect aircraft that would cater to exactly what they wanted.

“We’re no longer saying, ‘We’ll buy three off the shelf,’ ” said James Guyette, executive vice president of operations for United Airlines in 1990, “We’re back in the laboratory working on the product.”

Cathay Pacific
Cathay Pacific would go on to order the Boeing 777-300ER . Source: Wikimedia

The airlines came up with several criteria:

  • A passenger capacity around 360, to fit between the 767 and 747 in the Boeing lineup
  • Configurable to be either domestic orientated with two classes, or three classes for international routes. This means that airlines should be able to move galleys and other areas around, to fit in what they need.
  • The aircraft would need to be powered by the most modern engines available, and thus be the most efficient aircraft in the sky.

So, with the design settled, Boeing got to work building the ‘perfect’ aircraft.

Why is the Boeing 777 perfect for Qantas?

Qantas, at the time, had a fleet consisting of several Boeing 747s for their transpacific routes, 737-400s for their domestic routes and a few 767s. They even had an option on four Concordes – can you imagine?

Qantas was looking to expand its international fleet, and the 777 was perfect.

  • Long haul and fuel efficient, the 777 could fill in less dense routes to more destinations that the 747s couldn’t handle.
  • Australia is very far away; the 777’s increased range (especially the 777-300ER) would suit Qantas perfectly.
  • Dense domestic routes, such as Sydney to Melbourne, could have massive capacity and allow Qantas to corner the market.

But, they ended up ordering Airbus A330s and Airbus A380s instead. Why?

The 2nd longest flight that Qantas operates is from Dallas to Sydney on their Airbus A380. Photo: Wikimedia

Why did Qantas never order it?

The year was 2000, Sydney was hosting the Olympics, Qantas had just founded Oneworld and James Strong was the CEO.

Qantas would make an order for 12 A380s, 13 A330s (including both types, -200s and -300s) and six 747-400ERs.

They claimed that the Boeing 777 was unsuitable for domestic routes (too big), and that’s why they ordered the A330s. As they also ordered the 12 A380s, they did not need the 777s for the international routes.

Qantas would go on to regret that choice. Whilst the A380s work well for airlines like Emirates who have long haul dense routes (London to Dubai for example), Qantas only has London or Los Angeles as dense long haul routes. Many of their other routes would be better served (and far more efficient) with a twin-jet aircraft like a 777-300ER.

“It is great to be able to say I wish I could get in a time machine and go back to 2000 and [change] the fleet order [made by] not the last CEO, the CEO before that,” Joyce told Australian Financial Review. “But the reality is we have the aircraft we have. We just have to get on with life,”

Alan joyce
CEO Alan Joyce has said that Qantas should have ordered different aircraft back in 2000. Photo: Qantas

Qantas would go on to order the Boeing 787 in 2005 in an effort to remedy their mistake.

Now, this last note is definitely in the rumor territory, but according to one comment, a previous CEO of Qantas was strong-armed into selecting the A380 bundled with an A330 order rather than the Boeing 777. Airbus apparently threatened to never compete for Qantas’ money again, and would simply charge list prices.

After he was instated as CEO, Geoff Dixon told employees that Airbus’ John Leahy told him that if he didn’t buy the A380 bundled with A330s that Airbus would not compete for another Qantas order again. Whether Geoff believed this or not, he shouldn’t have, but that is what he said at the time. Dixon was the last chance Qantas had to escape. Even he came to realise as well that not having 777s was an Achilles Heel but even he turned it down twice more, too.” – Source.

But with Qantas lining up to choose between the Boeing 777X and Airbus A350 by the end of the year… maybe history won’t repeat itself.

What do you think? Should Qantas have ordered the Boeing 777? Let us know in the comments. 

11 comments
  1. Nice story; but inaccurate to my recollection, as to Boeing consulting ‘ever’ with airlines before. Examples: PAN AM actually participated in the design of the Boeing 707, as well as being the launch customer. Pan Am later invested with advanced payments and participated in the design of the Boeing 747; and was launch customer. The 2nd deck on the 747 was initially so high so they could do a ‘lifting nose’ design; as prevails in freighter versions.

    I enjoy your blog by the way!

  2. Qantas won’t repeat mistakes but not having ordered the 777 20 years back puts them in a difficult position today when considering the 777X. It’s in Boeings court how they will handle Qantas regarding “Project Sunrise”. Qantas lacks leverage when not having a 777 fleet but a clean sheet do-over with the Boeing 777X is a strong possibility. The 777X or A350 decision is an advertising decision for the two big makers of aircraft and Qantas is milking this angle as far as it can. Qantas Fleet structure will decide who wins the Project Sunrise competition and so far Boeing has the fleet components over Airbus in frame numbers with the 787 leading the way. It will be a Boeing 777X choice because of that conclusion during the Qantas/Project Sunrise campaign.

    1. I do not think the Qantas 777 question revolves around Project Sunrise. If it ever gets done, the aircraft will be a short version, either of 777-8, A350-900. In order to go the distance with quite a lot more of heavy fuel you have to take passengers and freight off, so you do not need a long airplane. You need a high-capacity, efficient wing (777) under a light-weight body (A350). You could possibly do it with a 787. It’s a specialized, mostly over-land route with fuel challenges.

      The Qantas long haul problem is all about flying the Pacific’s heavily traveled routes to destinations on the US West Coast. The problem has been ETOPS, and part of the solution includes new variances that fly more efficient, more direct routes beyond the 3-hour limit. The increased reliability of the GE-90 on which the GE-9X is based allows the argument that there have been no in-flight events to prohibit an extension of the 3-hour limit.

      I think the Qantas choice of the A380 was a prestigious mistake, as do others. The thing is, it might be in their best interest to reconsider the 747-8, which is easier to fill, has new efficient engines, and can fly anywhere it wants. It seems old hat, right? It might seem like a step backward, but there are some routes that might still justify its use and the expense of four engines. It’s not needed over the North Atlantic. It seems a bit much over the South Atlantic which remains a very-hard-to fly area for lack of ETOPS options. We don’t have a trijet we can re-engine. We should invite the Chinese to add the mid-ocean island complete with airstrip, right. It would probably cost more than flying 747-8 aircraft, half empty.

      (Most do not know that a good part of the weight problem on the A380, the one that requires high load factors, is the oversize wing that looked forward to the A380-900 without changes. It dead weight that reduces the efficiency of the A380-800 design.)

  3. It makes sense if Qantas order the 777X; 777-8 has the range for Project Sunrise and the 777-9 would be an ideal A380 replacement should Qantas decide to reduce or remove it’s A380 fleet in the next decade. I get the feeling that the A380 is becoming increasingly unfavorable for airlines and we’ll now see large reductions of them in service (E.g. Air France, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and the cancelled order from Emirates) and the trend of twin engine widebodies like the 777 couldn’t be any stronger at present. I’m in no doubt that Qantas regret not ordering the 777 back in the early 2000’s.

    Aspects of Commonality with the 787-9 fleet will also help to make the Qantas fleet more cost-effective. They could even go as far as ordering more 787’s to replace their A330’s (maybe even the 787-10 for routes to Asia), which I would expect Qantas to obtain a heavy discount should they make a large combined 777X/787 order in the near future.

    Interesting article by the way!

    1. Max & Alex are both on the money, although the 747-8i is somewhat of an outsider. Qantas has always
      participated in pooling agreements (LRU parts) and Engineering contracts with long-term partners. So 747-8i does not fit with these economics. Yes the big mistake made in the late 1990s /2000s really hurt Qantas ever since.
      The A380 is now uneconomic on long routes as it uses excessive fuel and cannot carry much cargo.
      Whereas the 777-300ER is superb for Emirates on routes like Dubai – DFW (equivalent pax/cargo loads the A380 consumes 100 Tonnes more fuel! Also on Qantas Asian routes the 777 is the frequent flyer preferred ride.
      I was there during those decades & had several robust exchanges with one Geoff Dixon CEO, who at his last shareholders meeting admitted not buying the 777 was his biggest mistake.

  4. The A330 is a far superior aircraft than the 777-200 so that is why they went that way. A 777-300 with that would work as a mixed fleet but they needed 4 engined ETOPS for some routes as well the prestige value of the A380. The 2 year and 4 year delay to the A380 and 787 didn’t help and makes hindsight a wonderful thing. The A350-1000 may get the sunrise gig as Airbus is offering it which means they can do it while it is much the same size as the 777-8 but lighter.

  5. Of course having the 330 and 380 on the fleet, the 350 has cockpit and other crew commonality making transition easier for crew and maintainence.

  6. Geoff Dixon stated at the time that the 777 was too heavy.

    Nice rumour mongering in the story; most of it hearsay, as usual.

    And note that Joyce did not specifically say that he would have ordered the 777.

    Personally, I find them to be excessively noisy when using them as a passenger on other airlines.

    Qantas must be happy with the A380, as they are soon to be refitted inside for another 10 years service. And they are used on the Kangaroo route to LHR as well.

    1. The 777x is hardly more thsn a modernized dinosuar so, selecting it will leave airlines at a disadvsntsge as from delivery.

  7. The 380 is a vastly superior aircraft to the 777. The 777 is noisy and cramped, even in business. The long range Airbus 350 is a much better option than a revamped 777 with an X

  8. Got to remember though that the 787/777 share a common type rating and many commonalities in engineering procedures and some parts.

    This makes training more efficient.

    The A350/A330/A380 are all vastly different airframes and while they share similarities in flight control laws, cockpit design etc. they all have very different handling characteristics and systems, leading to different type ratings for all types.

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