Boeing (BA) forever changed aviation in 1970 when it introduced its 747 jumbo jet, whose size and range revolutionized flying and became a cultural icon in the process. It’s since gone on to log orders for more than 1,500 of the humpbacked behemoth’s various models. But now the world’s No. 1 maker of commercial aircraft is poised to offer a model that may kill off its best-known creation.
Betting it can capture the operating economies of a huge plane in a smaller one, Boeing is undertaking a radical makeover of its smaller 777 jet that will be ready to take flight by decade’s end. The new 777X model will boast the biggest engines ever put on a plane, a record wingspan that can be shortened by having the tips fold up after landing, and lower operating costs. Cramming all this cost-saving technology into a smaller plane that operates with two engines—rather than the four needed by jumbos—could herald an end to the race to build ever-larger jets that’s driven much of modern aircraft design.
The 777X will be the first twin-engine jet able to ply long-haul routes with payloads comparable to the larger jumbos. That’s likely to accelerate airlines’ shift away from mammoth, four-engine fuel-guzzlers such as Boeing’s latest 747-8 and Airbus’s (EADSY) double-decker A380. “My assumption is the 747 is dead, or will be dead in a year or two,” says Adam Pilarski, senior vice president at aerospace consultant Avitas. Like the 747 four decades ago, he says, the 777X is aimed at a market segment where it lacks a direct rival and “may have a very good run.”
The first model, the 777-9X, will be able to fly as far as 8,000 nautical miles with more than 400 passengers while burning 20 percent less fuel than the current 777, now the world’s biggest twin-engine jet. A second variant, carrying about 350 people, will follow and push the range past 9,400 nautical miles—far enough for a New York-Singapore nonstop flight. Experts expect airlines to approve. “It’s just very difficult to stop the compelling, strong economics of the big, long-range twin airplanes,” says John Plueger, president of Los Angeles-based jet lessor Air Lease (AL).
Even though Boeing’s board has yet to grant final approval for the plane’s launch, Boeing already has grabbed an $11 billion order from Lufthansa (LHA:GR) for 34 of the jets. Peter Arment, an analyst at Sterne, Agee & Leach, predicts the tally may reach “well over 100 orders” worth more than $34 billion at list prices after the plane’s expected unveiling at the Dubai Airshow in mid-November.
By rolling out an aircraft that will eliminate the need for a megajumbo at many airlines, Boeing may cannibalize sales ofits own 467-passenger 747-8, whose $356.9 million list price makes it the aircraft manufacturer’s most expensive model. George Ferguson, a senior analyst with Bloomberg Industries, says Boeing has little choice but to take that risk, since Airbus in 2014 is set to begin deliveries of its new midsize A350 widebody, which will compete head to head with the current 777. Explains Pilarski, a former executive at McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing bought in 1997: “If they continue with the status quo, the 777 will begin losing market share.”
The 777 is the top-selling plane in Boeing’s lineup. Able to carry as many as 350 people, it lists for $320.2 million for the largest model, although discounts are common on all planes for launch customers and those ordering in bulk. The catalog price of the 777X, expected to be about $340 million based on Lufthansa’s order, hasn’t been made public.
Most airlines’ interest in jumbos cooled years ago. Boeing has won only 40 orders for the passenger version of the 747-8, which entered service in 2012, and has received none so far in 2013. Instead, Boeing has drawn far more excitement from customers over its much smaller (210 seats to 330 seats), super-efficient 787 Dreamliner. Still, Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president for marketing, insists the 747 remains critical to the company’s goal of offering a range of products to satisfy demand for planes with 200 to 500 seats. “We’re bringing the 777X to the market eyes wide-open with how it will fit in the family,” he says. “We’re confident the 747-8 will be a great airplane to complement what we’re doing there.”
Airbus, a latecomer to the jumbo market with the A380’s 2007 arrival, defends its jet as being in “a totally different size and comfort category than the 777X,” says Senior Vice President Chris Emerson. Typically configured with seating in the low 400s to the low 500s, the A380 has amassed 259 orders, although none in 2013.
Boeing’s newest 777 will borrow the swept carbon-fiber wing developed for the 787 Dreamliner, expanding to a span of 233 feet, the largest ever on a Boeing commercial jet, according to Aspire Aviation, a Hong Kong-based consultant.
With the broader wing, the 777X will need 15 percent less thrust from its new General Electric (GE) engines than required on the current 777-300ER, even though the new plane will have 50 more seats. Each engine will produce 102,000 pounds of thrust, giving a 777X about as much propulsive power as five of Boeing’s pioneering four-engine 707s from the 1950s.
The biggest design breakthrough features relatively simple technology: a hydraulic actuator to fold the hinged wingtips after the jet lands. That will let the 777X dodge rules limiting jumbos to airports with specially widened taxiways and gates. Operating costs will be lower, since the wider wings would otherwise cause the planes “to take up two whole gates, and you’d have to pay for that proportionally,” says Hubert Horan, a former airline executive who’s now a Phoenix-based consultant.
Plueger says the 777-9X clearly heralds the end of the line for less-efficient, out-of-production versions of the 747, such as the jets that Lufthansa is replacing. “We see the 9X as an airplane that will finally serve the role of eliminating all of the remaining 747-400s out there,” he says.