After a shaky beginning of the year for its new jetliner, Boeing is putting all efforts to show the  777X program is well on track. A week ago it assembled the first flight test version of the new widebody, having completed the ground test model in September. The already famous folding wing tips gained the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval  back in May 2018. But as program testing appears to be on course for the launch date in 2020, the 777X order book remains stuck in 2017.

On November 20, 2018, Boeing announced that it has made the “final body join” of the new 777X, connecting the nose, mid and aft sections to a 252 feet long (77 meters from nose to tail) giant airliner – the longest passenger jet the manufacturer has ever made.

Giant with wings to wide for hangars

The ambition does not end with having just the longest passenger airplane. Au contraire: once in service, the aircraft should be “the largest and most-efficient twin-engine jet in the world,” and offer airlines 12% lower fuel consumption and 10% lower operating costs than “competing airplanes”, the company states.

One of the means to achieve that − the new 100,000lb-thrust (445kN) General Electric GE9X turbofan engines, which are not going to be small either. Set to have the largest front fan at 134 inches (around 3.4 meters) in diameter, the massive engine radius is as wide as the body of a McDonnell Douglas MD-90.

After suffering various technical glitches and delays in 2017/2018, the engine maker finally began flight trials of the GE9X in March 2018.

General Electric announced on March 14, 2018, it has begun flight trials of the world’s largest jet engine – the GE9XTM, set to power Boeing’s 777X aircraft.

Besides super-long fuselage and massive engines, the 777X is also equipped with peculiar wings. The bigger version of 777X, the 777-9, has a wingspan of 236 feet (72 meters). To fit onto taxiways and regular gates, the wings are equipped with folding tips.

"The 777X will be 12% more efficient per passenger than any airplane out there,” the chief engineer for the 777X project Terry Beezhold explained in October 2017. “A big piece of it is the engine, but this wing – with its enormous span of 235 feet – is part of the efficiency equation.”

The Federal Aviation Administration approved the folding wingtips of the coming Boeing 777X on May 18, 2018. The same day, Boeing announced that the wingtips entered the assembly line in Everett plant.

The aircraft comes in two versions: 777-9 and 777-8.  The first model introduced is going to be the 777-9, which can seat 400 to 425 passengers in a standard configuration and offer a range of 7,600 nautical miles (14,075 km).

A successor of ageing Boeing 777-200LR and 777-300ER models, the 777X is regarded as a competitor to Airbus A350XWB family and, sometimes, even the A380. But the A350XWB is flying since 2015 and Airbus is already thinking about its successor, while the maiden flight of 777X is scheduled for 2019, with entrance to the market -  in 2020.

Airbus’ latest plans may involve a new narrow-body jet as well as an upgraded version of its latest family of wide-bodies, the A350 XWB. And the plane maker is already hiring staff for the task, a report by Bloomberg on November 21, 2018, indicates.

The silence in orderbook

Boeing states, that to date it has “won 340 orders and commitments for the 777X from several airlines”. Its order book, however, lists only 326 orders. But this is not where the problem lies. The biggest issue with 777X sales is timing.

Boeing launched the programme  at the 2013 Dubai Airshow. Landing the first two customers upon the launch, the company boosted its 777X order book to 296 aircraft within the first two years (2013-2014).

But since then, pace slowed down substantially. Only 30 aircraft were added to Boeing’s 777X order book, in form of two orders. The first one, for 10 planes, was signed with an unidentified customer in 2015. The second, for 20 airliners, signed with Singapore Airlines in June 2017. This remains the last (official) 777X order to date.

Favoured by Middle Eastern airlines

So far, the 777X has found itself a market in the Middle East, as over two thirds of its total orders come from three Gulf carriers. Emirates being...well, Emirates, is the biggest customer and holds an order for 150 aircraft. Which is not surprising knowing the airlines’ taste for both big planes (i.e. A380) and for the good old 777s.  The Gulf carrier currently operates a fleet of 269 aircraft, of which 162 are Boeing 777s (142 777-300s and 20 777-200s, according to The carrier is also considered as a driving force behind the 777X project, having pressured the manufacturer to launch the program .

Then there is Qatar Airways, with an order of 60 aircraft. Etihad, together with Lufthansa, having placed their orders same time as the program was announced, still has an order for 25. In June 2018 news emerged that the carrier is thinking about scrapping the order. Having posted losses for two consecutive years, the airline would rather pay compensations for breach of contract than face losses from overcapacity, sources told Reuters at the time.

Curiously, another Middle Eastern carrier might step into Etihad’s place if it is to cancel the order after all. It is believed that Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) is looking for wide-body jets, and is considering 777X as an option. So far, however, neither the cancellation nor the order have been made official.

Saudi Arabian Airlines is reportedly looking into a potential order for Boeing’s 777X jets at a time when the U.S. plane maker is experiencing pressure.

New markets in Asia?

Aside from the Middle East, new hope for sluggish 777X sales might come from Asia. Both Thai Airways and Korean Air are reportedly looking into their widebody replacement options, choosing between A350 and 777X. The Thai carrier is looking to for replacement to its 747s, 777-200s and 777-300s, possibly capable to operate routes to the United States, Reuters reported in October 2018. The decision should be reached “by Christmas”.

However, none of the deals have been made official yet, leaving the 777X order book stuck in  2017.

On the main photo: Boeing 777X model in old livery colours.