The Boeing Co. is in no rush to make wholesale changes to its popular 777 to meet any competitive threat from Airbus and its A350, a Boeing executive says.
Until recently, Airbus had faltered in the market for jetliners that seat from 300 to 360 passengers. Its four-engine A340 has fallen out of favor with airlines because it is not as fuel-efficient as Boeing's two-engine 777.
But Airbus is developing the two-engine A350 to compete against both the 787 Dreamliner and the bigger 777. One version of the new Airbus plane, the A350-1000, is aimed squarely at the 777-300ER.
Its range and efficiency make the 777-300ER the best-selling member of the 777 family; Boeing has sold more than 300. Airbus, however, is starting to win orders for the A350-1000 from key airlines such as Emirates and Qatar that operate the 777-300ER.
Boeing has acknowledged that it will need to make the 777-300ER more competitive at some point to meet the challenge from the A350-1000. But not yet, said Martin Bentrott, who was recently named vice president of jetliner sales for the Middle East and Africa.
In a wide-ranging interview on board a 777-300ER that was delivered Thursday to Qatar Airlines, Bentrott said sales of the 777-300ER have not been slowed by the A350-1000, which Airbus has said will not be ready for airline service until 2015.
"We have 777-300ERs going to a majority of the largest operators in the world," Bentrott said.
Bentrott said Boeing does not yet have a clear picture of the A350-1000 and whether it will have the performance capabilities that Airbus is advertising. "So it is too early for us to rush off and start to get in a panic about having to spend a bunch of money for improvements to the 777."
For now, he said, Boeing is in "a good spot" with the 777-300ER.
Boeing has sold 777-300ERs for delivery into 2013 and is seeing demand into 2014, he said. Boeing's order book for 777-300ERs is essentially filled through 2012, other than for a few delivery positions.
"If someone came in and said, `We want a dozen airplanes in 2012,' there is no way we could satisfy them," Bentrott said.
"We will be getting that plane (the A350-1000) almost 10 years from now," Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, said in an interview.
"A lot of things change in 10 years. I'm sure that Boeing will come out with a plane to compete with the A350-1000. But today there is no 787-1000, but there is a dash-1000 in the A350. And that's why we elected to buy 20."
Qatar has ordered 80 A350s. Sixty are the smaller A350-800 and A350-900 variants.
Although Boeing is not developing a 787-1000, it will develop a 787-10, which would be a stretched version of the 787-9.
Some airlines, such as Qantas, are pushing Boeing for a "double stretch" of the 787-10 to seat about 350 passengers. Boeing has said it is looking at something closer to 300-310 seats. At that size, the 787-10 would be a replacement for the 300-seat 777-200ER, not the 360-seat 777-300ER.
Bentrott said the challenge for Boeing with the 787-10 is "coming up with a configuration that serves the worldwide market and not just single-area markets. We need to get through the flight tests on the 787-8 and see how the airplane performs and then see what we need to do about the 787-10 for that broader market."
He said it could be six months to a year before Boeing comes to any conclusion about the best size and range of the 787-10.
"What we are hearing now in the marketplace is that it is probably less about seat count and more about range capability of the airplane."
He said the majority of interest seems to be for a plane with around 300 to 320 seats that can do a variety of missions with a full passenger load at the range of the 777-200ER, which is around 7,200 to 7,500 nautical miles.
But while Boeing considers what to do next, some 777-300ER customers are not waiting.