Why Qantas Never Ordered The Boeing 777

Twenty years ago, when Boeing was developing its 777 aircraft, extensive talks were held with multiple airlines, including Qantas. Boeing wanted to build the ‘perfect’ medium-haul aircraft, bridging the gap between its 767 and 747 planes. Ultimately, Qantas never ordered the 777. It’s a decision the airline has sometimes regretted but has always been philosophical about.

Despite involvement in the initial design process, Qantas never ordered the Boeing 777, taking more 747s instead. Photo: John Taggart via Wikimedia Commons

“We just have to get on with life,” said Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce in 2014 when asked about the lost opportunity.

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A surprise decision Qantas came to regret

Qantas’ decision to skip the 777 took Boeing by surprise. When working on the 777, Boeing brought eight airlines into the fold. All except Qantas would go on to order the plane. This consultative approach was a new strategy by Boeing. Previously, it had designed planes, albeit with specific markets in mind, on a take it or leave it basis. But times were changing.

“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.

Qantas, at the time, had a fleet consisting of  Boeing 747s for its transpacific routes, 737-400s for its domestic routes, and multiple 767s. It even had an option on four Concordes.

Qantas was looking to expand its international fleet, and the 777 was seemingly perfect. The twin-engined 777 would be powered by the most modern engines available and was then the most efficient aircraft in the sky.

Passenger capacity was around 360, fitting nicely between the existing 767s and 747s in the Qantas fleet. The 777 was also flexible. While it could run on Qantas’ international routes in a three-class configuration, there was also the option to deploy the plane on some heavily trafficked domestic routes, including transcontinental routes.

Boeing may have thought it had a Qantas order in the bag. Instead, Qantas placed a significant order with Airbus.

At the time, the newly minted 777 was the most efficient plane in the sky. Photo: Boeing

Qantas turned to Airbus and the A380

2000 was a heady time at Qantas. Sydney was hosting the Olympics, Qantas had just founded oneworld, and things were looking good at the airline. Qantas placed an order for 12 A380s and 13 A330s. Instead of a swag of 777s, it asked Boeing for six 747-400ERs.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing. Twenty years down the track, it’s interesting to note then Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon’s comments about the wonders of the A380.

“This revolutionary new aircraft offered capacity and operating savings, as well as environmental improvements.”

For the first two decades of the 21st century, Qantas’ international fleet was largely comprised of the A380s, Boeing 747-400s, medium-haul A330s and, more latterly, the Dreamliners. The Boeing 777 never pulled up at a Qantas gate.

Qantas said it decided the 777 was too big for domestic routes. It was right about that. But the airline also argued the A380 was better suited to long-haul international routes. With the benefit of hindsight, the airline might have done better to choose the Boeing 777 over the A380.

“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,” said Alan Joyce.

“But the reality is we have the aircraft we have.”

Alan Joyce says Qantas has to work with the aircraft it has. Photo: Getty Images

History repeats itself at Qantas

Later, history went on to repeat itself. Last year, when Qantas was working on the now delayed Project Sunrise, the aircraft in the running were the Airbus A350-1000 or the Boeing 777X. The Boeing 777X is the offspring of the original 777 models. It’s also proved a bit of a problem child for Boeing.

Once again, Boeing pushed heavily for Qantas to run with the 777X on its Project Sunrise routes. Qantas ultimately turned to Airbus and picked the A350.

Still, you can’t entirely write off the possibility of Qantas ever flying the 777. In the 12 months since Qantas publicly choose the A350, there has been a lot of water under the bridge. Qantas international is at a standstill, and Project Sunrise is in hiatus.

Along the way, the current Qantas CEO has made some interesting comments. The environment has changed, Alan Joyce said. He’s flagged going back to both Airbus and Boeing in a year or two and asking for new proposals, reflecting the altered market conditions.

Boeing’s 777 program might be down at Qantas, but it’s not yet entirely out.

What do you think? Is Boeing’s 777X still in with a chance at Qantas? Or will it stick with the A350? Post a comment and let us know.