This past August, Thai Airways became the third major Asian carrier to officially expand on new orders of Boeing 777-300ERs for its global fleet. The Thai Airways’ August 18th order followed Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific who had already completed similar deals with Boeing earlier that month. These commitments further consolidate three of Asia’s largest carriers long haul fleets with the eminently successful Boeing 777-300ER variant. As the industry outlook improves in comparison to the utter devastation witnessed during the 2000-2010 era, carriers will increasingly look to rebuild fleets that are still dominated by aircraft whose design reached maturity in the 1990’s. The Airbus A330/A340 family, Boeing 777 (particularly the -200/200ER series) and much older 747-400 will be in need of replacements more acutely beginning around 2016. The A380, A340-600 and Boeing 777-300ER, the only major designs made available to operators in the mid-2000’s will remain viable approaching the 2030’s.
Asian carriers orders for the 777-300ER
The firm order for 6 Boeing 777-300ER by Thai Airways finalized a $1.7 Billion order initially announced during the Paris Air Show in June 2011. Cathay Pacific firm order announced August 10th covered a total of 12 aircraft comprising 4 Boeing 777-300ER and 8 Boeing 777 Freighters whose combined book value was $3.3 Billion. With this first time order for the Boeing 777 Freighter variant, Cathay Pacific has become the 15th customer airline to select the twin-engined freighter operating in the 100 metric tons segment where the only viable competitor had remained the larger 747-400 Freighters (112 metric tons) and its upcoming modern replacement the 747-8F (who will operate in the 130 metric tons market). In addition to the state-of-the-art freighters the Hong Kong-based carrier is also acquiring 4 Boeing 777-300ERs for its global passenger fleet. Announced the same day, a Singapore Airlines order valued at $2.3 billion aimed at procuring 8 additional Boeing 777-300ERs.
In the meantime lessors have also secured continuous access to the supply of one of the most highly coveted asset in modern air transportation history: a production slot at the 777-300ER assembly line. Air Lease Corporation did finalize a $2.2Billion order comprising 5 Boeing 777-300ER (along with some 14 Next Generation 737-800) around August 15th. GECAS had similarly been involved in a firm $2.9 billion contract securing the delivery of 8 Boeing 777-300ERs (along with two 747-8 Freighters). Giant lessor ILFC has refrained from betting further on the 777 as it is already one of the largest owner for the type (79 Boeing 777 total including 28 777-300ER, 8 777-300 and 43 Boeing 777-200ER).
Coincidentally the type also made its first appearance in the highly promising Chinese market on July 19th 2011 when Air China officially took delivery of the first of 19 Boeing 777-300ER ordered from Boeing. For the carriers involved in these latest transactions, at stake is greater share of the growing global travelers market through Asia. The business passenger segment has been particularly booming reflecting growing economies, forcing carriers to develop highly competitive products. Along those lines, the 777-300ER has appealed to carriers by emphasizing comfort on a very efficient Extended Twin engine Operation (ETOPS).
The group is coming off a $1.27 billions profit year on $14.52 billions in revenues up from $12.707 billions in 2010 fiscal year ended March 31st 2011 posted a cash and bank balances figure of $7.22 billions. Relying on upwards of 85 Boeing 777 as the backbone of its long haul fleet, including at least 19 B777-300ER, SIA is coming off a record year. Its fleet seems to have found the balance allowing it to remain highly profitable throughout most of the challenging 2000-2010 era. It has come at a cost for its 747-400 long haul fleet which had entered the new millennium with no less than 42 aircraft at hand. With the advent of the 777-300 and 777-300ER series, the 747-400 component has now shrunk to 4 aircraft. The introduction of the A380 Super Jumbo has allowed further product innovation with its First Class Suite. In the meantime the 777-300ER has remained the bearer of SIA traditionally strong Business Class product with the exclusive refinement found on the first class and a very spacious 3-3-3 abreast seating in economy class. In all the 300ER has been consistently used since its service entry for aggressive innovative on board products and services that SIA takes pride in refining with remarkable consistency. It is configured for luxury, business and leisure travel to seat 8 in first class using 2 rows of 1-2-1 (35-in wide seats with 23-in wide LCD) , 42 in latest business class 1-2-1 (i34-in wide seats) with 15.4-in LCD, and 228 in economy in 3-3-3. In total SIA provides capacity for 278 passengers aboard its 777-300ER.
Cathay Pacific had revenues of US$11.45 billions in 2010 up from ($US 8.59 billions) in 2009 allowing to post profits of US $1.8 billions with a debt/equity ratio of 0.28 and $3.10s billion in liquid assets and cash reserves of $5.405 billions. Cathay Pacific has also remarkably been well equipped for war on the Asian Business travel front, expecting its 777-300ER fleet to be entirely re-equipped with a newly introduced Business class product from April 2011 on. The Hong Kong carrier has accepted 2 new B777-300ER from Boeing in the last week of August alone. The first class cabin is arranged with six 81-in long seats arrayed as private fully furnished suites. The 53 Business class seats have 15-in LCD screens accompanying 82-in long flat bed whose finish is curiously reminiscent of Qantas A380 Suite, with lateral bed extension angled away from the aisle. The 238 seats in economy are characteristically for the Asian market aligned in 3-3-3 abreast. In this configuration, Cathay Pacific B777-300ER will accommodate 297 passengers. According to Boeing data, Cathay Pacific already operates 37 Boeing 777 comprising 5 Boeing 777-200, 12 Boeing 777-300 and 20 Boeing 777-300ER with another 26 still on order. Altogether its 777-300ERs fleet is now likely to swell to 46 aircraft.
Thai Airways International
Thai Airways has staged a return to profitability in 2009 after a difficult 2008 in which it had lost 21,400 millions Baht (US$ 704 millions). The 2010 profits were 15,350 millions (US $506 millions) on revenues of 184,270 millions (US$ 6.06 billions) in 2010 doubling its 2009 profit of 7,340 millions ($US241 millions).
We are assuming that Thai Airways Boeing 777-300ER seats configuration will espouse the one already implemented aboard the 4 Boeing 777-300ERs it operated on short term operating lease from Jet Airways throughout 2010;
These aircraft should comprise 8 Royal First Class seats, 30 Royal Silk Business Class seats and 274 economy class seats in 3-3-3 abreast with 32-in pitch for a total of 312 passengers.
Other carriers 777-300ER’s configurations
We may look in comparison to services offered aboard other major 777-300ER operators
–Eva Air the operator of 15 Boeing 777-300ER has configured its aircraft with 36 Premium Laurel (First) Class 22-in wide seats deployed in a 2-2-2 seating arrangement providing a 61-in pitch in private individual space. The 71 Elite Class seats (business) provide a 39-in pitch on 2-4-2 seats rows. In Economy Class, 211 seats are configured again in 3-3-3. The total seating capacity available on those aircraft is 318 (some aircraft will have 24-103-211 cabin for total seating capacity of 338.
–Air France the operator of up to 30 -300ER recently introduced the new Business Class (December 2010) seat that the carrier needed to compete. As a result First Class seating is now offered solely aboard the A380. As a result 383 seats are available in a 3-Class layout with 42 flat bed Business class seats along with 24 Premium Economy seats and 317 in Economy in the traditional 3-4-3 layout. The carrier has ordered 36 aircraft in all but will look to increase this number through operating leases.
–Emirates 777-300ERs introduce 8 private Suites similar to the ones found on its A380 Super Jumbo. The Dubai-based carrier offers 42 business class seats but varies the number of seats available in its 3-4-3 abreast Economy Class. As a result, the fleet of 26 Boeing 777-300ER (total orders number 70) it now operates can seat between 354, 358 and 364.
An already popular aircraft for carriers
To date, with 533 aircraft ordered by more than 35 customers, the 777-300ER is the most significant variant in the 777 family. Some 295 aircraft of the variant have been delivered to some 23 operators beginning in 2004 when carriers were most anxious to park quad-engined 747-400 on fuel efficiency grounds. The aircraft made its mark as a viable, economical and extremely effective twin engines replacement for the 747-400 during the tumultuous 2000-2010 decade. In a previous entry we already saw how Air France managed to introduce the 777-300ER on its highest density long haul overseas territories routes where it seems only 747-400 had been capable to squeeze 474 passengers on trips to the Indian Ocean and Caribbean French overseas territories. Air France demonstrated the 777-300ER prowess as a ultra high density passenger aircraft capable to accommodate 472 passengers in a 3 classes configuration. In 2002, the last eight passenger-configured 747-400 were ordered. Through 2006 when Boeing began to take 747-8 orders, a total of 141 Boeing 777-300ER were sold de-facto replacing the 747. The 777s -200, -200ER, 300 and 300ER and Freighters variants combine now for 1,242 orders of which some 956 aircraft have already been delivered (as of August 2011).
Some Carriers have successfully transitioned away from the 747-400 with adequate number of 777-300ER
Air France, Singapore Airlines and Korean Air are the carriers having
conducted large scale fleet consolidation and/or rationalization around the 777-300ER as a replacement for aging and less economical 747-400. Air France is awaiting delivery of 7 more 777-300ER to completely phase out the last 7 of 12 Boeing 747-400 Jumbo Jets acquired in the 1990’s. The carrier is expected to fly 36 Boeing 777-300ERs.
Singapore Airlines has replaced 38 747-400 aircraft with 19 Boeing 777-300ER and 19 A380.
Korean Air with 13 777-300ER along with orders for 5 Boeing 747-8 and 10 A380 will look to replace up to 27 legacy Boeing 747-400 ordered between 1986 and 1991.
All Nippon Airways currently 19 Boeing 777-300ERs replace favorably its 12 Boeing 747-400.
Japan Air Lines bankruptcy restructuring plans has simply forced its older and less fuel efficient 747-400 out of operation in favor of the 777-300ER. But again JAL scaled down its operations from a 42 Boeing 747-400 to a 11 Boeing 777-300ER (plus various -200/-200ER/200LR/300 variants totaling 28 aircraft) in order to comply with the restructuring plan.
Emirates, never a notable 747-400 operator will use 70 Boeing 777-300ER alongside up to 90 Airbus A380 to confront escalating passenger traffic at its Dubai hub.
Lufthansa fleet renewal plan deserves mentioning despite not operating 777-300ER. Its fleet will see the oldest among 29 Boeing 747-400 and 26 A340-300 be gradually replaced by 20 Boeing 747-8 and 15 A380.
However at the current rate, it is clear that many airlines boards will have a very hard time replacing the approximately more than 300 Boeing 747-400 passengers aircraft that remain operational (from the 523 Boeing 747-400, 400ER, -400M and -400D that were delivered from 1989) with Boeing 777-300ER. Capitalizing on the Boeing 777-300 fuselage being about 10 feet longer than the 747-400’s proved a very cost effective way to combat the cumulative effects of the 2000 recession, 9/11, SARS and a global financial melt-down during the previous decade. Surveying Boeing orders list confirms that most newly built 777-300ERs will go to the 23 customer airlines that already operate the type. Only 6 airlines expect to become first time operators of the type; Aeroflot, American Airlines, Biman Bangladesh, Garuda Indonesia, Philippines Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, and Thai Airways International will receive 40 aircraft. Furthermore the extremely high utilization rate that the left-over 747-400 fleet is currently being subjected to indicates very high passenger density straining flight operations at global carriers hubs.
Global carriers will need to order more 777-300ER , 747-8 or A380
Most hard-pressed are British Airways which took delivery of 57 747-400 aircraft but is only planning to operate 2 Boeing 777-300ER along with 12 A380. The British carrier has a further 50 older 777-200/-200ER aircraft, most of whom may require replacement by larger aircraft (A350/B787 or larger). KLM operation of 22 B747-400 only plans to operate 6 777-300ER. United Airlines 24 Boeing 747-400 and Delta Airlines 15 Boeing 747-400 are exposed in the US. Asian carriers where a sustained 6% annual growth in traffic is projected for the next 20 years; Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways International, Cathay Pacific.
In all, some 370 Boeing 747-400 will reach 20 years of age globally by the end of 2016. Although many of these have already been scrapped or been converted to freighters. According to Airbus some 1,781 very large aircraft (seating more than 400 passengers) will be commissioned in the next 20 years, almost half to Asian carriers, a quarter to the Middle East and a fifth to European carriers. Current orders books for 747-8, A380 and even 777-300ER simply do not add up these numbers. Given the logistics of manufacturing slots, a very significant number of these aircraft will have to be ordered within the next 24 months in order for global carriers to avoid operating aging aircraft (747-400) in order to meet passenger demand in the next four to six years.