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Could the Boeing 777X be the death of the Airbus A380?

Boeing 777-9X

Background

Boeing and Airbus have been competing each other in the commercial aviation space since the 1980s. In fact, they are the only commercial aircraft manufacturers out there today.

The two companies may produce similar aircraft, but their philosophies couldn’t be any more different.

Airbus still believes in pushing the limits of how big an aircraft can be. The Airbus A380 “superjumbo” is proof of that. It is the largest passenger aircraft out there.

The problem with Airbus’ approach however is that most airlines cannot afford such huge aircraft. The Airbus A380 is a quad-engine behemoth that requires a lot of fuel to operate. Not to mention the double decker body, the 80 meter wingspan, all of which affect aerodynamics and, ultimately, fuel consumption.

As a result, Airbus is suffering with the A380. Sales are at an all time low and Airbus was considering stopping production altogether until Emirates came up with a $14bn deal that gave the company some breathing room.

Boeing’s philosophy, however, is different and seems to be more viable in this day and age.

You see, airlines are constantly on a mission to decrease operating costs and increase profits. Airbus thinks that the way to do this is by making bigger aircraft.

But Boeing thinks that the secret lies in making smaller, more efficient aircraft which can cover long ranges. Boeing wants airlines to move away from the typical hub system.

For example: you want to take a flight from Dubai to Cape Town. You are flying with Emirates, and you’re lucky enough to be flying in an Airbus A380. The issue, however, is that Cape Town airport cannot take an Airbus A380. So the Airbus A380 lands in Johannesburg, and from Johannesburg you hop on to a smaller aircraft that transports you to Cape Town. In this case, Johannesburg is the “hub”, where larger aircraft arrive and then passengers split off from there.

This approach not only is more tiring and time consuming for passengers, but it is also more expensive for airlines.

That is why Boeing wants to move away from this hub system. In Boeing’s perfect scenario, you would be seated in an aircraft such as the Boeing 777X at Dubai, which would fly you directly to Cape Town. Sure, the number of passengers on a plane would be lower than that on an A380. But on the long run, this approach turns out cheaper for airlines.

Boeing already demonstrated this philosophy with the 787 Dreamliner. And for the most part, it is turning out to be widely successful. The success of the 787 Dreamliner is an attestation to Boeing’s philosophy, and proof that it is the most applicable in this day and age.

The elephant in the room, however, is long haul flights. The 787 is more of a competitor to the Airbus A350 than the A380. And Boeing’s existing 777 lineup has been getting a little long in the tooth. Boeing needed to do something. And so it did.


The Boeing 777X

In 2013, Boeing announced two new versions of the 777 dedicated for long haul flights: The 777–8X and 777–9X.

And the response was simply insane, to say the least.

Right there and then, the 4 airline powerhouses placed orders. Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and British Airways all placed orders immediately. Boeing themselves say that this is the most successful product launch they have ever had.

But all of these companies didn’t place orders just because all that cash was burning a hole in their pockets. They saw this aircraft as a machine that they could generate profits off of.

Boeing says that the 777X is the largest twin-engine jet out there, and that it is the future of flight unfolding. The “unfolding” part, at least to me, looks like a pun pointing to the foldable wing-tips of the aircraft.

The 777–8X has the longest range of any twin-engine aircraft, while the 777–9X is designed to carry more passengers and cargo.

Speaking of passengers, they will enjoy the same huge windows they have come to love on the 787 Dreamliner, as well as other technologies from the Dreamliner such as its electronic flight controls, air conditioning that doesn’t flow through the engines, and wider, more airy cabins.

The aircraft will be built of lightweight composite materials, improving aerodynamics and efficiency, similar to the 787 Dreamliner.

The flight deck gets some much needed love too, such as touchscreen displays as well as head-up displays such as those found on the 787 Dreamliner.

Due to the wingspan of the aircraft being longer, it is only natural to assume that airports will need to redesign their gates to accommodate the longer wingspan. But that is not true. Remember I mentioned the foldable wing-tips? Well, the aircraft’s wing-tips will fold up, so that the aircraft can fit in existing 777 bays. Pretty nifty if you ask me.

On its own, the 777X is a pretty impressive aircraft. But when you put it against this:

How exactly do the two aircraft compare, and how am I making the assumption that the 777X will be the death of this quad-engine monstrosity (monstrosity in a nice way)?

Well, for starters, there is economics.

An Emirates A380 configuration has a capacity of 489 across 3 classes. 399 of those are economy class, 14 are first class, and 76 are business class.

The Boeing 777–9X, according to Boeing’s specifications, has a total capacity of 400–425 across 2 classes. Suppose Emirates goes for the 425 seat configuration, with 10 seats for first class, 30 for business class, and 385 for economy. While there may be 64 passengers less, you must keep in mind that we are moving away from the traditional hub system. That means that instead of Emirates having to fly a separate plane from Johannesburg to Cape Town in our example, they can fly the plane directly from Dubai to Cape Town. This saves them a lot of costs in the first place.

Now let us come to the range. The A380 has a range of 15,200km, and the 777–9X has a range of 14,075km. The 777–9X is just 1,125km shy of the Airbus A380, which is quite an impressive feat considering that we are comparing a twin-engine aircraft with a quad-engine one. I am sure no flight out there would be hampered by the 1,125km of range that is short on the 777–9X, or that the 64 passengers less would affect Emirates in any significant way. Of course, the way I configured the seats on the 777–9X is only an estimate, but I think I have illustrated my point clearly. Airlines are saving a TON of money without compromising too much.

Then, there is the upfront cost of the aircraft. The Airbus A380 costs a whopping $445.6m, while the 777–9X costs $388.7m. The 777–9X is a full $56.9m cheaper than the A380, and when you factor in the other savings, it is quite a good deal of money saved for airlines.

Lastly, there is the future of the Airbus A380 (or lack thereof). Airbus is having major financial issues producing the A380 and are running in huge losses trying to sustain the project. The only airline that seems interested in the A380 for now is Emirates. Singapore airlines is considering ditching the A380, while other airlines are showing no signs of purchasing more.

I think this, along with the other points mentioned above, is enough to make me believe that the 777X will be the death of the A380.

But what do you think? What are your speculations and/or studies on this subject? I would be happy to hear them.

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