777-8/9: no delivery dates, no schedule rumours of cancellation

It seems like half a lifetime ago, but Emirates ordered what was then and still remains the largest value commercial aircraft order in history, at a staggering US$76 billion, and that was at 2013 prices. It’s value by the time the aircraft are delivered, if the ever are, is likely to be closer to $90 billion, even allowing for changes.

The airline ordered 35 of the 777-8, which we already know is unlikely to ever see the light of day, having been placed on the back burner by Boeing back in 2019, and in all fairness is now almost certainly dead, baring the most extraordinary upswing in demand.

The push to stall the 777-8 was a realisation from Emirates that it had probably ordered too many and they were too big for their likely market, so the swapped that over to 30 787-9’s.

Emirates also ordered 115 of the 777-9, a move that was clearly intended to reflect the A380’s in service and would probably have seen their near one for one replacement over the next ten to twelve years. The planned passenger numbers for the 779 are extraordinarily similar to the A380, and at such a seating range that they’re more likely to be running at the 90-95% occupancy level rather than an 80-90% typical of core A380 routes.

And then came COVID-19.

Emirates seems to be perfectly happy to let Boeing decide when the first aircraft might be delivered, and the later that happens to be, Emirates don’t seem to mind. Indeed they see the ball as very much in Boeing’s court.

Boeing has slowed development, both because of the pandemic and because it’s up to its neck in MAX and getting it back into service, never mind winding down 748F production, and transferring the remaining production of the 787 to Charleston and mothballing the production line on the West coast.

And yet there is more, fresh suggestions have found their way out of Boeing to journalists suggesting that the whole programme has been discussed as having a potential for cancellation. Boeing it seems isn’t convinced that any of the buyers are going to take their aircraft on anything like the scale needed to make it break even. If they push ahead with certification and production, that’s a whole lot more cost and outgoings they may never see recovered. They are afraid, and with good reason that they may have another A380 on their hands, only worse.

There has even been suggestion that Boeing may itself, no longer be happy with the design standards and the rigorous certification process the aircraft will be put through. They are, suggest some, so nervous that something will crop up to makes them look bad, that that alone will give buyers an excuse to bolt from unwanted orders, they’re considering just letting it all go.

There is also a potentially far more lucrative option in front of them – the so called NMA dubbed 797-X, the real competitor for the A321neo/LR/XLR. That they know they could sell, and in big numbers, and it would replace the larger 737-9/10, allowing the 737 programme to dwindle and be itself replaced.

Yet all this speculation while it has some merit, would leave Boeing without a new large aircraft for possibly a decade or more. Some are saying the age of the ‘jumbo’ aircraft is over anyway.

Yet there is nothing to replace the 777-300ER. The A350 outclasses it in economic terms and the 787-10 is too small.

Airbus are stuck with the A330neo and even fewer buyers. Harsh fiscally savvy types would say it should be killed off, yet that would leave Boeing as masters of the market in the 787/A330 size.

Yet money talks, or the lack of it does. Boeing is looking at a money pit in the MAX and its return to service, and another in the 777-9. MAX will probably pay for itself eventually, but the 777-9? It’s a risk and Covid could have tipped it over the point where it’s one risk too many.

Personally, I’d say Boeing are already too far down the road, and it will get built, but it still wouldn’t surprise me to see it cancelled. And I have to be honest and say, that if I was running Boeing, I’d kill it off, prep the development of 787+ re-engined and go for the NMA and a replacement for the MAX. That’s where the growth is in the future and the future is what matters. An aircraft designed to meet past requirements in an industry so drastically changed and with such a long way to go to recover, that is in no position to even begin to take delivery of the 777-9, well it’s a lost cause.

Imagine what else they could do with all that money. And get it back with profitable aircraft the airlines actually want.