When you’re regarded as one of the most luxurious airlines across the globe, you want the aircraft that you fly to be up to standard. Emirates ordering an aircraft is not a common sight – after all, its only orders for the last five years was for 50 Airbus A350s, firming up an order for 36 A380s and 30 Boeing 787 aircraft. Six years ago, the Dubai-based airline committed to the newest Boeing 777 derivative, the 777X. While neither the A350 nor the 787 have yet flown bearing Emirates’ colors, the 777X is yet to be certified. However, even before that relationship begins, the drama will be already there.
Boeing announced the launch of the 777X program during the Dubai Airshow 2013, which took place in November 2013. Four airlines initially committed to the aircraft upon the launch of the program: Etihad Airways with 34, Emirates with 150, Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) with 34 and, finally, Qatar Airways with 50 aircraft upon the launch of the program. The Middle East three seemingly found that the X was the mark they were looking for in their map of the future.
Market gap for the 777X?
By that time, the Airbus A380 was available for quite some time, and it was slowly becoming clear that the Super Jumbo would not last a very long time. Costly operating economics, expensive acquisition cost and airports swaying away from it due to its immense size and exceptional requirements were not exactly a great mix, considering the competition from the aforementioned Airbus A350 or the Boeing 787. The mega-hub business model never truly materialized, as evident by the rather short customer list. Another quad-engine aircraft, the Boeing 747-8, was driven primarily by cargo airlines but also lived shortly. Boeing has announced that the production of 153 units would run its course in 2022.
With that, the Boeing 777X will be free to dominate the very large market of aircraft that could seat around or more than 400 passengers in a two-class configuration.
However, the newest Triple Seven is not the trailblazer that anyone hoped it would be. Boeing, before cancellations and re-adjustments, had booked 350 orders for the long twin-aisle aircraft. Emirates was one of the few airlines that minimized the size of its initial order, going from 181 to 126 aircraft, according to the airline’s own website. Emirates downsized its order in November 2019, during another rendition of the Dubai Airshow. Replacing the order for 30 Boeing 777Xs were 30 787-9s, the mid-market version of the Dreamliner – a much smaller aircraft than the Triple Seven X.
The order looks like a dark stain in the history of the Boeing 777X and Emirates airline. Yet the relationship always had stains, which have reached the public domain multiple times.
Shrouded in darkness
The ever-delayed newest iteration of Boeing’s most successful wide-body aircraft has been shrouded in darkness. With ever-mounting delays and certification woes across the board, the clientele that has ordered the aircraft are yet to know when their deliveries will finally arrive.
For example, Cathay Pacific has deferred their deliveries to beyond 2025, as the cash-crunching crisis has eaten into their finances. The Hong Kong-based airline signed up for the folding-winglet aircraft in 2013, and at that time, expected the Boeing 777X to be delivered “between 2021 and 2024.” For others, trouble began much sooner. The financially ailing Etihad was debating whether to defer or cancel orders for the type already in 2018, reported Reuters at the time.
However, Emirates was seemingly always a firm believer in the aircraft. In 2016, upon its partnership announcement with Thales to provide an inflight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) system on the 777X, Chief Operating Officer Adel Al Redha described the wide-body as follows:
“The new Boeing 777X aircraft will herald a new era for the Emirates fleet, and we want to ensure that our product offering on these fuel-efficient planes will be a benchmark for the industry, including the inflight entertainment experience.”
In fact, the Dubai-based airline took over the spot of becoming the launch airline and is set to operate the first commercial flight of the Boeing 777X. “Emirates is now actually ahead of its original mid-2020 schedule to receive its first 777X aircraft,” in an interview with the Gulf Times said Boeing’s Vice President of Sales for the Middle East, Turkey, Russia and Central Asia Marty Bentrott in October 2017.
That has shifted since.
“They were due to be delivered this year in June, then it was 2021, then it was 2022. It hasn’t finished its certification program yet, both airframe and engine,” in an interview to Bloomberg stated the President of the carrier Tim Clark. “I have no idea,” simply and bluntly put Clark in November 2020.
The latest remarks by the senior executive was not the first time that Clark told Boeing, to put it mildly, to get its stuff together.
The manufacturer had its fair share of trouble throughout 2019, in addition to the Boeing 737 MAX crisis. The certification process, and the reported coziness between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing, came under fire. The 777X program itself was struggling. General Electric had to redesign the GE9X engine, announced the company in June 2019. The problem, which was initially found in May 2019, related to the high-pressure compressor. That delayed the certification of the engine, and without a type certificate, the 777X was unable to begin its flight testing campaign.
Following the engine issues, Boeing itself faced problems. Following a stress test on the ground, the rear cargo door of the wide-body aircraft blew out in October 2019.
“I want one aircraft to go through hell on Earth basically to make sure it all works,” Clark remarked during the Dubai Airshow in November 2019. “We need to be absolutely sure that as she comes together, as she starts flying, everything is done in a manner that it should be done,” he described the 777X program.
The first test flight and subsequently the first delivery in 2019 and 2020, respectively, were thrown out the window, just like the cargo door. In January 2020, the Boeing 777X finally flew, but in a much different world – while not widely spread, the COVID-19 had started to slowly hit the demand for international air travel.
“After a good performance for the Passenger Network activity with positive unit revenue in January 2020, recent developments with regards to the Covid-19 have impacted the demand outlook, especially in the Asian network,” Air France-KLM commented when the company announced its Q4 2019 results in February 2020.
For a globetrotter like the Boeing 777X, which also seats quite a hefty amount of passengers, a crumbling demand for international air travel is detrimental. While the Boeing 737 MAX could be deployed to serve short-haul routes, there are very few domestic routes across the globe for the huge wide-body to make sense. Now, Boeing’s most recent delay has pushed back the introduction of the 777X to 2022. But the airliner will once again enter a much different world. Most airlines, especially legacy carriers, have taken up a considerable amount of debt to weather the storm, leaving little capital to spend on new aircraft acquisitions.
On the bright side, Clark is still a firm believer in the Emirates business model, including the mammoth Airbus A380. “My own view, and it’s always an optimistic view, is by the end of next calendar year or the first quarter of 2022, we’ll have all our A380s flying,” indicated Clark. Good news for Emirates, and its behemoth A380s, is good news for the Boeing 777X as well. After all, with lower operating costs due to simply having two engines fewer, the newest Triple Seven might as well become a favorable aircraft within the Dubai airline’s fleet, and potentially even replace the slowly out-going two-story goliath.