Flier comfort target of Boeing 777 upgrades

05/04/2014 7:34 AM

08/08/2014 10:24 AM

Boeing sees a way to set its new 777X jetliner apart for airlines normally fixated on costs: by making travel easier on a passenger’s nose and throat.

Creature comforts such as higher humidity and cabin air pressure to ease jet lag on long flights are part of the planemaker’s redesign of its flagship 777 for the 2020s and beyond, said Jim Haas, director for product marketing for Boeing’s commercial airplane unit.

Engineers are working to improve fliers’ sensory experience – and anticipating how needs such as entertainment may change over the next two decades – as Boeing overhauls all but two of its current commercial jets. The 777X is a centerpiece of the effort, because the current version is Boeing’s biggest twin-engine jet and a workhorse on overseas routes.

“What we have today is really the future of Boeing,” Scott Fancher, senior vice president for airplane development, said during a briefing on the development effort near the planemaker’s largest Seattle-area factory.

The stakes couldn’t be higher as Boeing seeks to shake off the production stumbles that left the 787 Dreamliner still consuming money a decade after development began. The world’s largest planemaker is redesigning its 777 and 737 cash cows as it competes with Airbus for dominance on bigger models and also contends with upstarts from Canada, Brazil, China, Russia and Japan for smaller jets.

The 777 is already Boeing’s biggest twin-engine jet, and the 777X promises to stand out in airports for its 233-foot wingspan and tips that flip up so it can squeeze into gates that now accommodate the current, smaller edition.

Executives want the interior to be just as distinctive, with larger windows, noise-damping technology and sculpted cabin walls that give coach passengers crammed 10-abreast a little more elbow room.

The first redesigned model, the -9X version, is due to enter service in 2020, with the smaller -8X following 18 to 24 months later. Boeing said in November at the Dubai Air Show that their list prices will be $377.2 million and $349.8 million respectively, topping the $320.2 million for today’s 777-300ER. The upgraded jet may also get a new name, Haas said.

Boeing must decide how much innovation to pack into the 777X, whose development costs are tied to the traits the new model shares with the current 777-300ER, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at Fairfax, Va.-based consultant Teal Group. While the 787’s cabin innovations would add complexity to building the 777X, those upgrades would let Boeing benefit from its investment in the Dreamliner, he said.

“You’re going to complicate the production shift from 777 to 777X, but there are complications from that already,” Aboulafia said in a phone interview. “Why not benefit from long-term commonality with the 787?”

The 777X has become the fastest-selling wide-body in Boeing’s history, with 300 orders since its November debut. Boeing promises longer range and lower operating expenses.

The -9X will haul a jumbo’s load of 400 people – 50 more than the A350-1000 from Toulouse, France-based Airbus – while flying farther and at less cost, according to Boeing. The company projects a 10 percent savings for each seat flown a mile, the industry benchmark for efficiency.

Boeing sees potential to expand the jet’s appeal, especially among airlines catering to savvy business fliers, by borrowing the 787’s distinctive interior technology. The company wants the 777X to meet or exceed the comfort of the Dreamliner, said Bob Feldmann, a Boeing vice president and general manager of the 777X program.

That means improving air quality, cabin pressure and lighting while also reducing noise.

“We are working in every one of those dimensions,” Feldmann told reporters. “We understand the 787 sets a real high bar for the industry. We intend to provide that type of experience or better.”

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