The Evolution Of The Boeing 777

The Boeing 777 started as a way to fill a market gap and slowly evolved into Boeing’s latest flagship, the Boeing 777X. Why was the 777 built, how has it evolved, and what can expect from its future?

The Boeing 777 has evolved over many years. Photo: Emirates

Why was the Boeing 777 built?

Back in 1978, Boeing had an impressive line-up. On the bottom end, Boeing had the narrowbody Boeing 737 (the defacto short-haul aircraft). This was complemented by the Boeing 757, the widebody Boeing 767, and the famous 747.

When ETOPS rules changed in the 80s to allow twinjet aircraft to cross oceans, airlines started to use the 767 in place of the 747 to fly to smaller destinations across the Atlantic (think New York to Barcelona instead of Madrid). The smaller passenger capacity made the aircraft easier to fill, and the twinjet economics made it cheaper to run.

The image shows the difference between an ETOPS flight path (green) and a non-ETOPS flight path (dashed blue). Photo: Vladsinger via Wikimedia.

However, this presented a problem. Now there was a gap in the market for an aircraft with more seats than the 767 and less than the 747 (a difference of around 100 seats). Airbus offered a competitive priced twinjet for the market, the A330 (and a more extended range A340 as well), and started to snap up customers. Boeing had to act, and bring something to market fast.

So, on December 8, 1989, Boeing started to offer the 777.

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A Boeing 777-200 prototype (tail number: N7771) flies above the clouds in Seattle. Photo: Boeing

Original designs

Boeing began by sitting down with airlines as part of the design effort; All Nippon Airways, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines, United Airlines, and Qantas (the last would be the only airline to controversially never order the 777).

After the consultation, Boeing had a list for the perfect aircraft: A twinjet aircraft with 10% better economics than the Airbus A330, capacity for precisely 325 seats, widebody like the 747, flexibility in cabin design and a glass fly-by-wire cockpit.

Airlines would continue to invest in the design process, with Cathay Pacific insisting in a broader diameter, ANA asking for the plane to be longer and British Airways asking for a higher maximum take-off weight.

The airframe maker would use fancy new technologies called “computers” to design the plane. Initially, Boeing didn’t believe in the accuracy of the computer design, so built a mockup nose section to test it. The mockup test “was completed with such precision that it was the first Boeing jet that didn’t need its kinks worked out on an expensive physical mockup plane”. 

First-generation – The Classics

The Boeing 777-200 (called only the 777 back then) had a range of 5,240 nautical miles (9,700 km), with 305 passengers in a three-class configuration. Primarily aimed at United States domestic carriers. it competed against the A330-300.

The first Boeing 777, a 777-200, flew for United Airlines. Photo: Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia

Boeing would build the Boeing 777-200 and deliver it to United Airlines in 1995. Then, it turned its eyes to its international customers like British Airways. The UK airline had requested a version that had a longer range and could easily fly long transatlantic routes. British Airways would fly the new 777-200ER, with an extended range of 7,065 nautical miles (13,080 km), on February 9, 1997.

European airlines, like British Airways, flew the Boeing 777-200ER. Photo: Aeroprints via Wikimedia

Following the success of the 777 and 777 extended range, Boeing looked at stretching the airframe to include an additional 60 seats (in a three-class layout). This stretch was of great interest to its Asian customers such as ANA and Cathay Pacific and would fly for the latter on May 27, 1998.

Cathay Pacific would be the launch customer of the Boeing 777-300ER. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

Second-generation – ultra-long-range

On February 29, 2000, Boeing moved forward with its plans for an updated 777 model. It would have more seats and a more extended range.

The first aircraft to come out of the redesign was the Boeing 777-300ER. It would combine the 777-300s seats with the range of the 777-200ER, something much sought after by Air France for its international routes. It would be delivered to that airline only four years later on April 29, 2004, which is an impressive turn around time.

Emirates, Connecting Flights, Dubai
Emirates loves the Boeing 777-300ER. Photo: Getty Images

Next, Boeing would look at extending the range of the 777-200ER for its Asian customers to reach Europe and thus create the Boeing 777-200LR. This aircraft set new records for aircraft range (although some have argued that the range of the 777-200LR is too long) at 8,555 nautical miles (15,843 km).

A Boeing 777-200LR. Photo: Venkat Mangudi via Wikimedia

Boeing would also build a freighter version of the 777, using the fuselage of the new 777-200LR combined with the bigger fuel tanks of the 777-300ER – perfect for heavy cargo. This would enter the market in 2008.

The freighter version of the Boeing 777. Photo: Olivier Cabaret via Wikimedia

Third-generation – 777x programs

The Boeing 777 program, by the late 2000s, had been incredibly successful. It had even overtaken the Boeing 747 in sales. Alas, composite fuselages, and fuel-saving technologies started to change the aviation game and resulted in Boeing facing two distinct challenges.

  • External pressure from the new Airbus A350 series – a twinjet successor to the A340 program.
  • Internal pressure from the smaller Boeing 787 series – airlines preferred to deploy it over the 777 despite having fewer seats.

Thus Boeing needed to update the 777 once again to meet customers’ expectations and preserve its competitive edge. It would have an improved cabin, bigger engines and be the new flagship from Boeing.

Boeing has offered two versions of the 777X to airlines (and private individuals), the 777-8 and 777-9:

  • The 777-8 can seat 384 passengers in two classes and fly to a range of 8,730 nautical miles (16,170 km).
  • The 777-9 can seat 426 in two classes and fly to a range of 7,285 nautical miles (13,500 km).
Boeing 777X
A mockup of the two aircraft side by side. Photo: Boeing

In November 2013, Boeing officially launched the 777X program and received countless orders from airlines around the world (but still none from Qantas). So far, only four 777X aircraft have been built, and due to current market forces, it is unlikely that Boeing will deliver the aircraft until at least 2022.

According to the Boeing lists prices on its website in 2019, in the 777 programs, you can only buy the 777-200ER, -200LR, 777F, -300ER, 777-8, and 777-9 variants. This makes the -200ER is the only Classic variant remaining available.

Lufthansa 777X
Lufthansa has ordered the Boeing 777X. Photo: Lufthansa

The Boeing 777 has gone through many different improvements and evolution throughout its life. As it fits the market perfectly, it is likely to remain a popular aircraft well into the next 50 years.

What do you think? Do you like the Boeing 777? Let us know in the comments.