Pandemic pushed Boeing’s 777X switch to cargo-next strategy | To analyse
Boeing’s decision this week to begin development of its 777-8 Freighter marks a strategic shift for the program – a shift driven by the twin factors of exploding demand for air cargo and the continued impact of the pandemic. on international air travel.
The company now confirms that it has delayed development of the passenger variant of the 777-8 until it has developed the newly revealed 777-8F.
While the move creates more uncertainty about the -8 baseline, prioritizing a freighter gives Boeing a plane it can sell now — and a plane to counter Airbus’ in-development A350F.
“We remain committed to the 777-8 passenger aircraft, which will follow the 777-8 Freighter,” Boeing told FlightGlobal. “Our customers have told us they need additional cargo capacity first, as long-haul passenger traffic continues to recover from the pandemic.”
“We designed a freighter in the 777X family from the start, and this flexibility validates this approach,” adds Boeing.
The aircraft maker did not reveal when it plans to release the passenger 777-8, leaving customers uncertain.
“We do not yet have a specific timeline for our first 777-8 delivery and continue to engage Boeing in this regard,” said Emirates Airline, a 777-8 customer.
The 777-8 passenger variant has never been a big seller, with Boeing’s backlog for the type standing at 32, according to Cirium Fleets data. Of these, Emirates holds 14, Etihad Airways holds eight and Qatar Airways holds 10. (These numbers could change due to pending conversions by Qatar.) Boeing itself does not disclose 777X orders per variant ; it holds a total of 320 orders for all variants of the 777X.
Neither Etihad nor Qatar responded to FlightGlobal’s questions about their expectations for the 777-8.
But this plane is now the third in line. First, Boeing must certify the 777-9, which it aims to put into service at the end of 2023. Next will come the 777-8F.
Boeing launched the freighter on Jan. 31 with an order for 34 people from Qatar. Of these, only 14 are new orders; Qatar will convert the remaining 20 from its existing 777X backlog, which includes the 10 777-8s and 50 777-9s.
Qatar, based in Doha, has also taken options to acquire 16 additional 777-8Fs. Boeing plans to deliver the first in 2027.
Boeing’s decision to prioritize the 777-8F came as no surprise.
The 777-8 passenger aircraft program had been stalled since even before the pandemic. The uncertainty surfaced in 2019 as Boeing scrambled to keep its delayed 777-9 development program on track. In August of the same year, the company suspended development of the 777-8 without disclosing a timeline.
The Covid-19 pandemic hit soon after, eroding demand for the long-haul international flights Boeing designed the 777X for. Meanwhile, Boeing executives hinted at a 777X Freighter.
AIR FREIGHT TAKES OFF
The air cargo market has evolved tremendously amid the pandemic. According to IATA, air cargo capacity fell 23% year-on-year in 2020, largely because airlines grounded many large passenger aircraft that had carried cargo in their bellies.
In 2021, air cargo has come back strong, with cargo volume up 19% year-over-year due to factors including shipping issues and demand for medical equipment, according to the data. IATA data.
Meanwhile, demand for dedicated air freighters has surged, with Boeing calling 2021 a “record year” for its cargo business.
The company landed orders for 84 new freighters last year, including 767Fs, 747-8Fs and 777Fs. Customers included Atlas Air Worldwide, Emirates, FedEx, Lufthansa Cargo, Maersk Shipping Company, UPS and Silk Way West Airlines.
Also in 2021, Boeing took orders to convert more than 100 passenger planes to freighters — “more than double” that pre-pandemic order activity, he said.
Just days ago, Boeing announced it would increase 777 production this year by two to three jets per month, in part due to increased demand for freighters.
Boeing estimates that airlines worldwide will need 2,610 more freighters through 2040, including 450 new widebodies, according to its 2021 Commercial Market Outlook.
Airbus also jumped into the widebody ring last year, announcing in July that it was developing a freighter version of its A350, based “primarily” on its A350-1000. Airbus is targeting entry into service of the A350F in 2025.
Amid this backdrop comes the 777-8F.
The GE Aviation GE9X powered jet will have a range of 4,410nm (8,167km), a cargo volume of 766m3 (27,056m3) and a capacity to carry 31 pallets on its main deck and 13 on its lower deck, according to Boeing. The jet’s maximum “revenue payload”, which excludes the weight of pallets and other shipping materials, will reach 112.3t. Its maximum total payload – called “structural payload” – will be 118.3 t.
The 777-8F will measure 70.9m (232.5ft) from nose to tail, about 1m longer than Boeing’s plans for its base 777-8 passenger variant, according to company data.
|Performance, capabilities: how the 777-8F compares|
|Airplane||Range (nm)||Payload (tons)*||Maximum take-off weight (kg)||Cargo volume (m3)||Main deck paddles||Lower deck paddles|
|*Payload figures for Boeing jets quoted in “Revenue Payload” (excluding weight of shipping materials). Airbus lists the “maximum payload” of the A350.|
|Sources: Boeing, Airbus, Singapore Airlines|
“The 777XF… it’s going to be a very good freighter, there’s no doubt in my mind,” says aerospace analyst Michel Merluzeau of consultancy AIR.
George Dimitroff, head of evaluations at Ascend by Cirium, sees the 777-8F as satisfying a “niche” market. “It wouldn’t make sense as a standalone product, but would make perfect sense in tandem with the 777 passengers,” he says.
The 777-8F’s specifications align with those of Airbus’ competing A350F, powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent XWBs.
The European jet has a slightly higher advertised range, at 4,700nm, and a slightly lower cargo capacity. Airbus lists the A350’s maximum payload as 109 t; it does not specify the revenue payload. The A350F will accommodate 30 pallets on the main deck and 12 pallets on the lower deck, and 728 m3 of cargo volume, according to Airbus and figures released by Singapore Airlines.
Such differences should give the 777-8F and A350F comparable operating economics, says Dimitroff. “Given their technological similarity, I would expect the operating cost per freight tonne-kilometre to be broadly similar.”
As for potential demand, Cirium’s latest forecast estimates that Boeing could deliver 185 777-8Fs through 2040, with Airbus delivering 170 A350Fs.