March 18, 2013
Fourteen years after controversially deciding to go with General Electric as the sole-source provider of engines for its longer-range 777 variants, Boeing is poised to repeat history by following suit for the next-generation 777X.
Boeing's rejection of a new 100,000-lb.-thrust-class engine from Rolls-Royce in favor of General Electric's GE9X for the extensively updated twin will undoubtedly upset some airlines looking for increased competition, just as the exclusive engine deal with GE did in 1999. However none of them can argue with the subsequent success of the GE90-115B-powered versions, particularly the best-selling 777-300ER which has established itself as the industry benchmark for long-haul, high-capacity twin operations.
The landmark decision also clears Boeing to ask its board of directors as early at its next meeting in April for authority to offer (ATO) the proposed 777X to airlines. The move, if approved, will put the company at the start of a six-year development track culminating with the entry into service of the first of two new 777 family members in 2019. The extended twinjet series will include a 353-seat 777-8LX, sized to succeed today's 777-300ER, and the 406-seat 777-9X, which opens up new territory in the higher-capacity long-range market. The larger model is provisionally slated to debut first, with the -8LX following around 2021.
Initial confirmation of the engine decision was expected March 15. However, well before this, airline sources describe Rolls as being “like a partner in a once romantic relationship that has quietly come to an end. The phone has stopped ringing.” Rolls was offering the RB3025, an advanced three-shaft design that was aimed at the same 10% fuel-burn improvement over the existing GE90 as GE's GE9X. The relationship between GE and Boeing, meanwhile, warmed considerably at some stage in recent weeks when Boeing CEO Jim McNerney and GE Aircraft Engines President David Joyce apparently agreed to outline terms over the engine maker's “development contribution” in exchange for exclusivity on both the proposed new models.
McNerney was president of GE Aircraft Engines when GE and Boeing struck the original sole-source engine deal for what was then also called the 777X. Others at the July 4, 1999, meeting included Boeing's Phil Condit (then chairman and CEO) and Alan Mulally (then Boeing Commercial Airplanes president), as well as Jack Welch, president of GE at the time.
Well into March, Boeing declined to comment on whether the engine selection has been made, saying only, “our decision regarding engine options will be based on the right technical solutions available at the right time under the right business arrangements to meet our customers' requirements.” GE was expected to confirm its selection for the 777X on March 15, while for now Rolls is staying quiet.
GE has made no secret of its long-term plan to maintain its dominance on the 777 by proceeding with development and testing of the GE9X. The engine maker is running several technology-demonstration efforts to support FAR33 engine certification in 2018, and entry into service in 2019. Commenting on GE's decision to plow on with tests despite Boeing's apparent indecision late last year, GE90 General Manager William Millhaem says, “even though Boeing is still figuring out what they want to do, we're doing the technology. It's the right thing to do for the industry.”