Boeing 777-9 or Airbus A350-1000 for the Gulf carriers?

777-9 or A350-1000?

Before we can understand what the aircraft is the right one for the Gulf carriers, we need to understand the missions which are demanded from the aircraft. Then we can compare the capabilities and economics of the aircraft over the route types.

Demanding missions

The missions which stretch the capabilities of the aircraft are the destinations to the US West and to South America from the Gulf, Figure 1.

Figure 1. Demanding routes for the Gulf carriers. Source: Great Circle Mapper.

Going East is easier, as the distances are shorter and the aircraft would not fight prevailing headwinds. If we would have done the Dubai-LAX flight today we would have an average of 11kts headwind on our route over the North Pole.

This would prolong the 7,246nm great circle distance to Los Angeles to 7,415nm air distance. Add to this margins for airway routing and we are quickly at 7,500nm or more. A headwind of 11kts is not bad, there would be days where we would have to fight the double and this is when the aircraft gets stretched in their capabilities. We can see our aircraft shall be able to fly routes with air distances (route + wind) of at least 7,600nm at the load factors we would like to have on the routes.

Aircraft performance

Boeing and Airbus give the maximum performance for their aircraft with a full passenger with bags load. As they use different rules for how this maximum performance is measured, the aircraft can’t be compared directly. The 7,525nm range for a full 414 seat 777-9 is measured with tougher rules than the 7,950nm for the A350-1000 filled with 366 passengers with bags.

To make the aircraft comparable, we load them with an equal standard cabin, our two class Normalized cabin with 15% Business class lie-flat seats at 60-inch pitch and 85% Economy seats at a 32-inch pitch.

Normal airliner cabins for long-haul are filled with three class cabins today. But each class change in the aircraft increases the risk for an unfair comparison of the capacity of the aircraft. In fact, the OEMs use this when they do their “Neutral “comparisons against a competitor.

They compare aircraft with a least three classes, ideally four. Then they choose the class sizes (the number of seats in each class) so they fit their own aircraft ideally (blending nicely with door areas and fixed fundaments) and so it fits the competitor’s aircraft poorly.  By smart choice of class sizes and seat types, a skew of up to five percent in seat densities between the competitors compared with what we use can be achieved.

We, therefore, stick to our two class Normalized cabins. They give the fairest “per seat” comparison for the aircraft. For the 777-9 our Normalized cabin contains 60 Business seats at 60-inch pitch and 354 Economy seats at a 32-inch pitch for 414 seats. The A350-1000 has 369 seats divided as 54 Business at 60-inch pitch and 315 Economy seats at a 32-inch pitch.

We run the simulations in our performance model with passengers+bags as 100kg (the IATA recommendation) and with an enroute fuel reserve of 5%. The alternate is 200nm away and we have reserves for a circling time at the alternate of 30 minutes.

The A350-1000 is then a 7,600nm aircraft, whereas the 777-9 is at 7550nm. It means both aircraft can fly the routes we require with full cabin our just about. The trouble days will also be when there is a hot take-off from Gulf. We, therefore, assume our challenged flights depart early on the day to avoid off-loading passengers because of take-off weight restrictions.

Aircraft economy

If a 777-9 can be loaded full it will have slightly better per seat economics than the A350-1000. The difference in per seat fuel burn is 1.5% to the advantage of the 777-9 on these types of routes. Crew costs and Landing, Handling and Enroute fees are slightly better for the 777-9 but maintenance costs are higher. All counted per seat.

This means the Cash Operating Costs are around 1.2% -1.5% better per seat for the 777-9, but aircraft mile costs are 11% higher. This is calculated at present fuel prices of $2.20 per US Gallon.

Summary

There is no practical range difference between the aircraft. Both can handle the toughest Gulf routes at 100% load factor or just below.

The A350-1000 is operational now, with the 777-9 arriving in two years. The 777-9 program is, so far, running smoothly with a small hick-up on the GE-9X engine side (the compressor guide vane controls need to be redesigned). We can, therefore, assume the projected performance for the 777-9 will also be the in-service performance.

The per-seat economics between the aircraft are close, meaning the Gulf airlines need to pick the aircraft which has the right capacity for the routes. If the 777-9 can be filled, it’s the right aircraft. But the slightest weakness in the load factor on the route and the A350-1000 is the better aircraft.

If will be interesting to follow how the Gulf carriers will do with their large orders for the 777-9.

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