* 777-8X seen breaking Boeing's record for jetliner range
* Ultra-long haul jets remain a niche market
* Technology battle between revamped 777 and Airbus A350
By Tim Hepher and Praveen Menon
PARIS/DUBAI, May 3 Boeing has shown airlines a
blueprint for the world's longest-range passenger jet, adding
spice to a long-awaited revamp of its 777 wide-body jet, people
familiar with the matter said.
Boeing on Wednesday launched a race against Airbus for sales
of the newest long-haul jets by announcing it had begun selling
an upgraded aircraft family code-named 777X.
First seen in the 1990s, the 777 cornered the market for
large twin-engine aircraft able to fly routes previously only
possible with four engines, earning it the nickname
Analysts say the 777 is Boeing's most profitable plane,
thanks largely to the 777-300ER, a 365-seat version that began
operations in 2004.
Most of the industry's attention is now focused on a future
400-seat version known as the 777-9X, which is Boeing Co's
response to a growing challenge from the largest version
of Europe's newest aircraft, the Airbus A350-1000.
But talks between Boeing and potential buyers have also
generated interest in a 777-8X that would be a successor to the
777-200LR, the industry's current distance champion, with a
range of more than 9,300 nautical miles (17,200 km), people
briefed on the talks said.
The 777-8X, boasting a range of 9,500 nautical miles (17,600
km), would be designed for some of the world's longest trips
such as from the Middle East to South America.
"They are offering an ultra-long range aircraft in the
777-8X," said an industry source briefed on the plans. "It'll be
the longest range aircraft in the business."
Boeing declined to comment on specifics, but spokeswoman
Karen Crabtree said the company is working with customers to
fine tune the details.
Experts say ultra-long range planes deliver mixed benefits
to airlines and so far the market for them remains a niche,
overshadowed by the juggernauts designed for trunk routes.
That is because when modern aircraft fly the longest 15-hour
flights, the first few hours are spent mostly burning the fuel
needed to carry even more fuel for the rest of the flight.
These aircraft "carry more fuel to carry more fuel," said
consultant Richard Aboulafia of Virginia-based Teal Group.
"They need a very big wing with lots of (fuel storage)
capacity, which means lots of structure and weight."
Fuel is not the only source of extra weight. The long
journey times also mean loading extra meals and a reserve crew,
so that the fuel burned per hour - a measure of efficiency - can
end up greater than if the plane simply stopped en route.
Airlines must balance this against any extra revenue they
can charge for a direct flight and the ability to eliminate the
fuel wasted in climbing and descending twice, as well as
en-route landing fees and other costs linked to a stopover.
Proof that ultra-long haul is not for everyone is contained
in a quick comparison of sales for comparable existing models.
Boeing has sold 59 of its 777-200LR endurance jet, which
entered service in 2007, compared with 687 of the shorter-range
but highly popular 777-300ER.
Air India has announced plans to sell 5 777-200LR's and one
industry source said some or all could end up being acquired by
the government for VIP transport. Air India declined comment.
Before the 777-200LR, the industry's previous long-distance
record-holder, the Airbus A340-500, was capable of flying 9,000
nautical mile on polar routes yet notched up fewer than 40
Production was halted in 2011, driven also by a wider
slowdown in sales for all but the largest four-engine aircraft.
Reflecting thinner demand for super-long haul, the 777-8X is
expected to take a backseat to the 777-9X, which is seen as the
main weapon in an all-out defence of Boeing's mini-jumbo
franchise. The main model is slated to enter service at the end
of the decade.
Nonetheless, recent public presentations suggest Boeing is
confident the significantly enlarged wing and more powerful
engines designed for the main 777-9X model will give airlines
the flexibility to use the 777-8X spin-off more efficiently.
Randy Tinseth, vice president of Boeing marketing, told
financiers in January the 777X would have "significantly lower
operating cost" and greater payload and range ability. Airbus
says its 350-seater is the right size and costs less to run.
As both sides trot out competing claims, the 777 vs A350
contest is likely to spark a fierce debate on technology - just
as the industry digests the lessons of recent technical troubles
on the 787 Dreamliner and, before that, the A380 superjumbo.
Boeing is expected to argue that its decision to keep the
777's metal fuselage and focus on new carbon-fiber wings will
marry increased performance with a proven record of reliability.
Airbus argues its A350-1000, the largest variant of its A350
family, will be cheaper to run because the whole plane, not just
the wings, will be mainly built of lightweight carbon fibre.
Ironically, the two rivals are taking roughly opposite
positions at the smaller end of the market for wide-bodied jets,
where Boeing is pushing a possible all-composite stretched
version of its 787 Dreamliner against the traditional A330, an
older plane marketed on reliability and availability.
Both the 777 and A330 are important cash cows, helping to
produce the funds needed to pay for ground-breaking developments
such as the 787 and A350.