Two of the three big European airline groups are finalizing major long-haul fleet renewal campaigns and will have two key choices to consider, now that Boeing is close to offering its 777X. The aircraft will be going head-to-head with the Airbus A350 as it enters its first high-profile competition, but it could be overshadowing one of its own offerings, the 747-8, as well.

The main driver is the retirement of the Boeing 747-400 fleets of Lufthansa and International Airlines Group (IAG) unit British Airways (BA). Air France-KLM is the only one of the major European carriers operating a large fleet of 777-300ERs. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the proposed 777X not only competes with the A350, it also threatens to make Boeing's own 747-8 redundant.

IAG Chief Executive Willie Walsh says it is highly likely his company will place an order for the 777X. “Based on what I have seen, it is almost inevitable that [it] is an aircraft we will have in our fleet at some stage,” Walsh says. “It looks like a perfect fit for some of what British Airways would require.”

By contrast, Walsh tells Aviation Week that it is “unlikely” BA will opt for the 747-8 or any more than the 12 Airbus A380s already on order.

Both airlines in the IAG Group—British Airways and Iberia—have large fleet-renewal programs on the horizon; the Iberia portion is subject to completion of its restructuring program. At British Airways, a decision on how to replace around 30 Boeing 747-400s is still pending and longer term, the airline also needs a successor for the 777-200ER fleet (46 aircraft), although that is not an immediate concern.

Walsh indicates that IAG will make a decision, at least on the BA part of the fleet planning, sooner rather than later. “We don't have an immediate issue, but given the delivery timeframes we are not looking to delay [the decision],” Walsh says. “We have been in detailed discussions with both manufacturers and the engine suppliers in recent months and we have as much visibility at this stage about what options are available to us as we are likely to get.”

The decision will probably come down to the 777-9X or the A350-900/-1000. Walsh is pleased with the performance of the 777-300ERs BA has integrated at a relatively late stage and says, “If I'm honest, the regret I have is that we did not get the 777-300ERs earlier.” BA is operating the -300ER in a 297-seat configuration; its 747-400s only have two additional seats. On the other hand, Walsh believes that “as good an aircraft as the 777 is, it is going to be overtaken by the next generation of aircraft—the A350-1000, the 777-9X or versions of the 787.” Walsh points out that BA is likely to go for more than one type. “We have a lot of 6-10-hr. sectors in our North America network and then we have a lot of 12-13-hr. sectors—you are not going to get all of that into a single aircraft type, so different aircraft sizes make sense to us.”

Rival Lufthansa is also in the process of ordering similar numbers of long-haul jets. The German airline has to replace close to 30 747-400s as well as 24 A340-300s and 24 A340-600s. According to CEO Christoph Franz, the airline is analyzing the A350-900/-1000 and the 777-8X, plus the larger versions of the 787. The airline has been a key backer of the 787-10X, which has yet to be launched, and has made clear that the 787-8 is too small for its requirements.

Franz defends the decision to not have tackled replacement of the A340-300/-600 and 747 fleets earlier. He says such a move only makes sense when newer-technology aircraft become available, which has so far not been the case.

Lufthansa is also interested in the 777-8X, the equivalent of the 777-300ER, saying it is still in the process of taking delivery of 19 747-8s in what would be the 777-9X-size category. Franz says the -9X could become an option in the long term, but will likely only become available when the 747-8 is largely written off. He claims that would make the aircraft economically viable, even when the more efficient large twin arrives.

Air France signed a preliminary commitment for 25 A350s (and 25 787s) in 2011, but the A350 order has not yet been firmed up because the airline has been unable to reach an agreement with Rolls-Royce over maintenance rights for the Trent XWB engines. Air France operates 50 777-200/-300ERs, among them 18 early -200ERs. It also has 13 A340-300s and 15 A330-200s that will need to be replaced, at least in the medium term.