Boeing May Launch 777X Freighter Variant At Dubai Airshow

Boeing 777X test aircraft
In the extended run-up to TIA, Boeing’s 777X test fleet has been busy conducting company test flights.
Credit: Guy Norris/AW&ST

Debuting at an international event for the first time, Boeing’s 777X is expected to make headlines at this year’s Dubai Airshow—but not for the reasons the U.S. manufacturer could have imagined when the world’s biggest twinjet was triumphantly launched amid record orders at the same show eight years ago.

Instead of marking almost two years in service—as would have been expected had the program stayed on the original schedule laid out in 2013—Boeing is approaching the show still awaiting FAA approval to start formal type-certification testing. Delayed by the double impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and intense regulatory scrutiny in the wake of the fatal 737 MAX accidents, deliveries of the 777-9, the first of the 777X derivatives, are not due to begin until late 2023.

  • Strong demand for freighters benefits 777F and new version
  • Boeing stabilizes combined 777/777X output
  • Calhoun reaffirms service entry timeline

However, amid the unprecedented market turmoil and program delays, there are at least four silver linings for Boeing going into the show. The first—and most obvious—is that the devastating impact of the pandemic on international air traffic means that even if the 777X had been close to its original plan few, if any, of the original customers would have been able to put the aircraft into service.

The company’s January 2021 announcement of a $6.5 billion charge associated with the 777X delays was part of a painful but necessary adjustment aimed at limiting midterm damage and fostering longer-term recovery. Senior Boeing sources say the additional time was added “very deliberately” and gives margin for not only a global market recovery but also for adjusting to the new regulatory environment.

The task of certifying the 777X is seen within Boeing as a key chance to reestablish trust with the FAA, European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and other regulators around the world. The manufacturer wants the FAA to reestablish its role as an international regulatory leader and stabilize bilateral regulatory behavior around the world. The 777X “is really that opportunity,” the Boeing sources say, because the aircraft will be certified under EASA’s changed product rules, with exemptions and harmonization with that agency. Getting this process functioning again is seen as critical not just to Boeing but to the commercial aerospace industry writ large.

Second, the large-scale premature retirement of many flagship fleets of 747-400s, Airbus A380s and a smaller number of A340s because of the pandemic means the expected longer--term replacement cycle for which the 777X was designed has already been primed. Though new orders may be months or years away, the company’s market forecasters are bullish on prospects for this sector.

Third, while type inspection authorization (TIA) has yet to be approved for even a phased certification test program, Boeing has continued its own test effort with a busy flight campaign involving the first four development aircraft. Most notably, it began crucial cruise fuel-burn—or NAMS (nautical air miles survey)—testing, and senior company officials say the initial results are better than expected.

Boeing CEO David Calhoun confirmed during Boeing’s latest quarterly financial results on Oct. 27 that 777X NAMS testing had been positive. “The airplane is performing well and in line with our customer commitments based on the data we’ve collected to date,” he said. “We will validate these results, and we will continue to work with the FAA to ensure we meet their requirements prior to beginning the [TIA] certification flight test.”

The FAA is telling Boeing to “get your house in order before we run this test—‘Boeing do this before we do that,’” Calhoun says. “And we have stuck to that discipline, and that was all part of the original plan and the timing for [first delivery in the] fourth quarter of 2023. We’re still on that plan. Nothing at this moment in time has suggested that the plan isn’t still workable.” In flight tests, he adds that results so far support the proposed timeline, and no showstoppers have cropped up to date. “If ever there was going to be a ‘gotcha,’ that’s where it would be,” he remarks.

In addition, the company is using the extra time to transition production of the 777X from the low-rate initial production (LRIP) line at Everett, Washington, to the main line, which has been making the first few non-LRIP 777-9s or 777F freighters since the middle of 2021. Demand for those models has forced Boeing to add extra positions. Thanks to the uptick in freighter production, the combined output of 777F/777X aircraft has stabilized at around two per month, the lion’s share being the cargo aircraft.

Although specific details have not yet been announced, Boeing suggests further rate increases are planned. “Given continued strength in freighter demand, we have coordinated with our supply chain and are increasing 777 freighter production capacity in the near term,” Boeing says. “We now expect 2022 777 deliveries to be relatively in line with 2021.”

And it is this booming air cargo market that represents Boeing’s fourth 777X silver lining. Largely as a consequence of the pandemic, Boeing has accelerated plans for a freighter version of the 777X—a move that traditionally comes years into the production life of passenger versions rather than years before the initial model has even entered certification testing—let alone made its airline service debut.

Having made no secret of his desire to see the 777XF version launch, Calhoun views the cargo derivative as a chance to keep the Everett production line healthy as well as to fill, to a large extent, a niche for large cargo aircraft about to open up with the termination of the 747-8F line in 2022. Moreover, the competition—and the knowledge that Airbus is entering the large-freighter arena with the A350-950F—have stirred a new cargo derivative sized between the A350-900 and the -1000 to take on the 777F market. This is undoubtedly adding momentum to any pending launch decision.

Going into the air show, Calhoun appeared to downplay prospects for a freighter go-ahead at Dubai, although he left the door ajar, saying: “Given the continued robust freighter demand and the compelling economics of the 777X, we are currently evaluating the timing of launching a freighter version of our 777X airplane.”

Beyond the timing of the launch itself, the other big unknown remains which 777X version will be used as the basis for the freighter: the higher--capacity 777-9 or the yet-to-be-launched, shorter-fuselage 777-8? The 777-8, which is sized to be slightly longer than the 777-300ER, would likely make a more sensible choice. The go-ahead of a freighter model would still enable Boeing to offer a higher-capacity cargo aircraft than either the current 777-200LR-based 777F or the A350-950F, and it would provide the production line platform for a follow-on passenger model, should interest in that grow as the 777-300ER replacement market begins to accelerate later this decade.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.