Airlines have been in survival mode since the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008. But with signs that the world economy is entering a slow, sustained upswing, the industry is making bold moves that could lead to another order boom for widebody aircraft.

Airline leaders gathered last week at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual general meeting to exchange views and discuss trends. A major theme was that while increased profitability is still not leading to significant margin improvement, the financial climate is beginning to change. Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group (IAG), told the assembly, “I genuinely believe we're an industry that for the first time will start exceeding our cost of capital.” He argues that “the industry will be very, very different.”

Cost-cutting, capacity discipline and mergers in some markets have been the major drivers of financial improvements. But as demand growth kicks in, airlines in many parts of the world are becoming confident enough to look at replacing their existing long-haul fleets and plan for expansion. Airline leaders also expect oil prices to come down over time and settle back into the range of $80-100 per barrel, which would allow airlines to regain profitability even further.

There are also cautionary notes, such as the one voiced by Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam, who points out that the industry could soon face overcapacity again, given the massive number of anticipated aircraft orders.

The new widebody models—such as the Boeing 787-10X and 777-8X/9X as well as the Airbus A350 family—are likely to benefit the most from the upcoming wave of orders for new long-haul capacity. Airbus remains bullish about the outlook for the A380, although it does not seem as though many airlines are prepared yet to take on the risk of having to fill such a large aircraft.

Emirates, of course, is the exception. The airline would like to order more than the 90 A380s it had committed to, 33 of which have been delivered. But until it can find more space for them at its Dubai hub, it will have to hold off on new bookings. Emirates planners are reportedly looking at an A380 fleet of 120-130 aircraft.

Moreover, Emirates President Tim Clark says he would “dearly like the stretch” version of the A380, though he realizes that Airbus has its hands full with other projects now and needs sales of the current A380 to pick up first. Emirates has been looking at putting another 120 seats into a stretched A380, increasing capacity to 640 seats in three classes.

Clark expects Boeing to receive “a few hundred firm orders” for its proposed 777-8X/9X soon. “All the 777 operators are interested in the 777X,” he says. Boeing is offering the aircraft to customers and is widely expected to formally launch the program later this year. Clark hints that he originally talked to Boeing about receiving the first -9X around 2018, but that target has now shifted by around 18 months to 2020 or beyond. Boeing plans to follow the -9X, a stretched version of the current 777-300ER, with the -8X, which would be the same size as the current version.

Clark says the shift, about which Emirates is not happy, is due to 787-10X development work. Boeing now has an initial provisional order for the -10X from Singapore Airlines.

Emirates has long made clear it is keen to put the 777X to use as soon as possible on some of the longest routes in its network. “The 777-8X can fly Sydney-Rome,” says Clark. “That's a 20-hour flight.”

By contrast, Clark sees the A350-1000 as an aircraft for 10-12-hr. routes. “It does not have the legs of the 777X,” he says. Emirates' agreement for 20 A350-1000s reportedly allows it to walk away from those orders after the aircraft's redesign and what now looks like an 18-month shift of entry into service until 2017.

Boeing has also targeted Qatar Airways as a potential 777X customer. CEO Akbar Al Baker says, however, that he does not expect to be ready to place a firm order for the aircraft as soon as the Paris air show next week.

Some of the new widebody aircraft types may feature in Etihad Airways' next fleet moves. The airline is talking to aircraft manufacturers about a major joint order that would address its own long-term fleet plans as well as those of some airlines it partly owns.

Etihad is in the early stages of issuing a request for proposals, CEO James Hogan says. He would not be specific about the type or number of aircraft the airline is seeking, but he says they would be for delivery from about 2020. Such a timeline would align with Etihad's aircraft retirement schedule, and would help form the next phase of its fleet plan for the 20 years through 2040.

Hogan says Etihad regards this as a group deal that would also include Air Berlin, Jet Airways and Air Seychelles, all partner carriers in which Etihad has ownership stakes. There will be “full transparency” with two other strategic partners—Aer Lingus and Virgin Australia—and they will be able to join the deal if they wish, Hogan says.

Meanwhile, Etihad's more immediate fleet-growth plans are well underway. The airline expects to take delivery of its first Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 in the last quarter of 2014. The 10 A380s it has on order “are probably enough for us” at this stage, Hogan says.

South African Airways, Africa's biggest airline, has issued a request for proposals for the renewal of its long-haul fleet, currently made up of Airbus A340-300/600s and A330s. It is looking at both the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350.

In Asia, Singapore Airlines was among the first to resume placing orders, with a combined commitment for 60 A350s and 787s May 30.

Japan Airlines (JAL) is discussing a major order with Boeing and Airbus for the eventual replacement of its 777 fleet, and it is not averse to splitting the order between more than one aircraft type or manufacturer. JAL could make a decision relatively quickly, “if we can get a good deal,” Chairman Masaru Onishi tells Aviation Week; otherwise, it is prepared to postpone a decision. Fleet replacement for the existing 777s is not due to begin until 2019, so “we have a long lead time,” Onishi says.

The airline operates a fleet of 45 777s, divided between 777-200s and -300s primarily used in its domestic fleet, and -200ERs and -300ERs for international routes. Onishi says a wide range of aircraft will be considered as replacements—the 777-9X, 787-9 and -10X, as well as the A350-900 and -1000.

JAL is weighing an order for more than 40 aircraft, says Onishi. Ideally, it would like to replace the 777s with a single package deal, and that is where it will start negotiating. However, if JAL cannot achieve that, it will address the domestic 777 fleet first, Onishi says.

An order divided by either aircraft type or manufacturer is possible. Onishi notes that a fleet of at least 20 of the same type would work for JAL.

Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific Airways is still considering ordering either the Airbus A380 or the Boeing 747-8I, although no decision is imminent, CEO John Slosar says. “We've done some work, but we're not at the point that would lead to a decision,” he says.

Regarding the proposed Boeing 777X range, Slosar says Cathay Pacific will take a close look at the aircraft. The airline is one of the world's largest operators of 777-300ERs, “and we like the type,” he says. “Anything that made it better would be very interesting for us.”

Even European carriers are in the process of finalizing major deals for new widebodies. IAG recently placed a large order for A350-1000s and more 787s (a total of 36 aircraft, not counting options). The group is looking at another order for what is likely to become a 777X fleet later this year.

Lufthansa, still in the midst of a major restructuring program and in spite of having frozen expansion for the time being, plans to order about 50 more long-haul aircraft this year to replace its Airbus A340-300s and -600s.

The airline is looking at the A350-900/1000 or a mix of the 787-9/-10X and the 777-8X and -9X. It plans to take delivery of the aircraft around 2020-25.

Lufthansa CEO Christoph Franz is critical of the general design trends for long-haul aircraft, however. Because of pressure mainly from the fast-growing Persian Gulf carriers, both Airbus and Boeing are being pushed to design aircraft with more range capabilities and engine power than most other operators require. European airlines, therefore, have to deal with over-designed aircraft that carry additional unneeded weight, Franz notes.