During a week in which Qantas did all the heavy ditch digging and Virgin Australia made sure not to interrupt its toils, word came that both carriers have recently been shown some possible developments of the Boeing 777.

In terms of their focus on urgent and immediate issues, it must have been a difficult time for either airline to get more than politely interested in a concept which is neither firm in specifications nor capable of any sort of offer from Boeing without being further refined and then approved by its board.

But it is important as a reminder that Boeing is up to something that could be immensely important to Qantas, Virgin Australia and their competitors.

This recent brief item in Aviation Week leaves out a few details. The 777-X factor that comes across most clearly amid all the possibilities Boeing is contemplating will be a wingspan close to 80 metres, that is, as wide if not wider than the wing on the A380, and that gust load alleviation technology will be critical to lessening the challenges this presents in terms of weight and efficiency. Which isn’t surprising, even though Boeing isn’t choosing this early between significant use of composites or hybrid or upgraded metallic alloys in what is a predominantly aluminium airframe in current 777s.

The ‘discussions’ also confirm that Boeing is considering 777 upgrades as an alternative to extracting the necessary efficiencies from the 787 Dreamliner family. Without leaping to conclusions, it is important to keep asking where, or when, will the benefits of composites promised for the 787s, and the emerging Airbus A350 lineup, deliver on the hype, and have those benefits been outpaced by further developments in alloys?

The factor Boeing seems keenest to explore with the Australian carriers is range-payload efficiency benefits. There are two considerations in play. On the one hand, Boeing is naturally keen to trump the all new Airbus A350 family, especially the A350-1000 which poses an obvious risk to the 777-300ER. The other is the development of the 777 line to offer an airliner with the payload of the current -300ER model flown here by Emirates and V Australia with the extended range capabilities of the -200LR, notably seen in Australia operating Delta, Air Canada and Emirates services. The 777, like the A380, has the potential to become an airliner able to fly non-stop with a commercially useful payload between London and any Australian city.

The notion of being able to fly past the Singapore and Dubai hubs used with such devastating effect on Qantas by Singapore Airlines and Emirates has long been a dream that successive managements of the flying kangaroo have reached out for, only to have it stay just beyond their reach, their hopes for an ultra-long range 787 having been extinguished by the troubled record of that program.

The longest route flown by an airline, the Singapore Airlines A340-500 service between Newark and Changi, involves flight times of up to 18 hours 50 minutes, and the most realistic estimates of the time to fly from Sydney to London, and arrive with legal fuel reserves for holding, going around or diverting are around 21 hours.

Think about it. That’s tonnes of extra fuel that require even more tonnes of fuel just to carry it all the way to the airspace over eastern Europe, where it may never be needed.

Think about the massive amount of fuel that has to be lofted off a hot runway in Sydney at the start of such a flight, all the time with enough power to become airborne if one engine shuts down at a point where the jet has become too fast to stop on the remaining runway.

These are everyday considerations for flights to say Los Angeles lasting just over 13 hours, but incredibly demanding at this stage of airliner technologies for a flight that will be airborne for an extra 7-8 hours, and needs to climb high enough when it is still ultra heavy to run its engines with acceptable efficiency, as it is no good being confined to say 25,000 feet for hours before the jet loses enough mass to rise to 35,000 feet and eventually 41,000 feet or slightly higher.

The 777-X will have to do these things, as will any version of the A380 that exploits the unused potential of its wing, and in each case, use engines that will be considerably improved compared to the best available today.

It is doubtful that either Qantas group CEO Alan Joyce or Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti would spend even minutes considering a 777-X in these difficult times.

But somewhere in both airlines, there has to be a set of 777-X files, and they could become of material importance in the next few years.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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