The new member of the popular Boeing 777 family, the 777X, has taken to the skies and is expected to be delivered to launch customer Emirates in 2021. Boeing so far has not released any formal plans for a freighter version of the 777X, despite interest from customers. This article looks at the possibility of a future launch of a 777X freighter.
The 777X – proving popular so far
The Boeing 777 has been the best selling widebody aircraft to date. Introduced in 1994, this was the first aircraft to feature full fly-by-wire operation. With other advances though, and with new competition from the A350, the time came for an upgrade. The 777X was launched in 2013 as the newest member of the 777 family.
The first 777X test flights began in early 2020, and the 777-9 will enter service in 2021 with Emirates. Boeing so far has 309 orders (as at the end of January 2020) from nine airlines (including Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, ANA. Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines).
It is offered in two variants – the 777-9 and the smaller, but longer range, 777-8. These bring many upgrades over the 777, including:
- A higher passenger capacity (Boeing see the 777X as a potential replacement for retired 747 aircraft as well).
- New General Electric GE9X engines – the largest engine built to date, but lighter than the current GE90 due to fewer fan blades and use of carbon fiber composite materials.
- More efficient operation, with around 10 percent lower fuel burn.
- A unique folding wing design, aiding fuel efficiency but increasing airport operating options.
Space for a new freighter
There are no official plans for a freighter version of the 777X as yet, just the two passenger versions 777-8 and 777-9. Boeing already manufactures two of the most popular freighters on the market, however, the 777 and 747 freighter versions. Boeing has already launched a new freighter version of the 747-800, so a logical expansion would be to do so for the 777X, with all of its engine and efficiency benefits.
There is certainly space in the market. In reporting in the cargo industry publication Cargo Forwarder, Boeing claims that an additional 1,040 wide-body freighters will be needed in the coming 20 years.
Boeing has not dismissed the possibility of a freighter version. In fact, in communication in 2015, it discussed the possibility that a future freighter version would be based on the 777-8 airframe. This would follow 18 to 24 months after the 777-8 passenger model enters service (currently not expected until at least 2023).
Qatar Airways offers to be the launch customer
There is current customer support for the development as well. At the Paris air show in 2019, Qatar Airways expressed its desire for a 777X freighter to be made available, and a willingness to be the launch customer. Qatar Airways already operates 16 Boeing 777 freighters and signed a deal for five more at the Paris air show.
Speaking at the show (and reported by Flight Global), Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker explained:
“By 2025, our initial freighters will be getting about 10 years old, so we will need to replace them. Hopefully, Boeing will launch a 777X-based freighter.”
What about Airbus?
To date, Boeing has pretty much dominated the freighter market with the 777 and the 747. Airbus offers competition with the A330-200 freighter, but this has been much less widely used, with only 41 orders (as reported in Wikipedia data).
According to Cargo Forwarder, Airbus has indicated it is looking at the possibility of a freighter version of the A350XWB, and Cathay Pacific at least has expressed interest as its fleet of 747 freighters ages.
So, with neither manufacturer having confirmed plans, there is an opportunity for the first to develop a ‘new generation’ freighter. Boeing though, with its strong lead in the current freighter market, likely has the advantage if it moves to develop the 777-8.