News that a key test on Boeing’s next-generation 777 wide-body jetliner went awry last week raised questions about possible production and delivery delays, but for all-cargo fleets, the glitch is a non-issue because no freighter variant is planned right now.
Still, the plane provides great value as a cargo hauler because its huge lower deck will be able to hold lots of cargo. The 777X-9 is bigger than the 777-300 Extended Range, which can hold 44,000 pounds of freight even with a full complement of passengers.
Boeing on Sept. 10 confirmed that an issue arose during final load testing of the 777X that required developers to suspend testing. The aerospace manufacturer did not specify what happened during the ground test, which involved bending the wings well beyond what would be expected during normal flight, but media reports said a cargo door blew out during depressurization of the aft fuselage.
“While our root-cause assessment continues, at this time we do not expect that this will have a significant impact on aircraft design or on our overall test program schedule,” the company said. In June, the 777X moved under its own power for the first time during a taxiway test.
A bigger woe for Boeing is a problem with the plane’s GE-9X engines discovered during preflight testing. That has pushed the scheduled first flight until early 2020. Boeing still is targeting first deliveries by the end of the year, but a slower engine fix could push the timetable into 2021.
Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, has 344 orders for the 777X from airlines such as Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific.
The 777X will be the longest twin-engine passenger jet, capable of carrying 385 to 425 passengers in two configurations and achieving 10% better fuel efficiency than the 777-300 Extended Range due to improved aerodynamics and engines. It has an enormous wingspan of 235 feet, with folding wingtips so it can fit at airport gates.
Test failures are common in airplane development, but a bursting cargo door sounds dramatic and Boeing is under heavy scrutiny while it tries to fix software problems that caused two deadly crashes and the grounding of the global 737 MAX fleet.https://www.freightwaves.com/news/airlines-to-carefully-meter-737-max-back-into-fleets
“The optics might be worse than the actual challenges,” said Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at Teal Group, an aerospace market research firm in Fairfax, VA. “First, this is a known fuselage that’s been in production a couple decades,” with more than 1,600 built and delivered. “Putting new wings on it creates new stresses and challenges, but I can’t imagine they wouldn’t be able to sort through it. It just takes work and it’s kind of embarrassing.”
The good news is Boeing can solve the airframe issue at the same time as the engine one, he added.
There is no freighter version of the 777X, but Boeing officials said during the summer that they are exploring when to add it to the lineup. So far the only carrier to publicly express a desire for a 777X freighter is Qatar Airways.
Typically, Boeing doesn’t introduce a freighter until well into the life of a program and Boeing has said it will keep up production of the 777-200F for several more years.
But plans could accelerate “if you have a launch customer who is eager to get it and a business case” for a bigger plane, Aboulafia told FreightWaves.
“It’s not inconceivable that sometime in the mid-2020s you’ll see a freighter version. When you have a new major derivative, you don’t want to keep the old version going for longer than necessary, just for reasons of production efficiency,” he said.
FreightWaves Air Market Expert Jesse Cohen said it’s not clear yet if the market is looking for a freighter to slot between the 777-200F, with a payload of 105,000 pounds, and the larger 747-8.
In recent years, the trend has been away from large aircraft, which are more expensive to operate and more difficult to consistently fill with revenue-bearing loads.