News Singapore Airlines

Singapore Orders 20 Boeing 777-9s, 19 787-10s. Nail in the Coffin for the A380?

Firm order for Boeing's largest twin, the 777-9, could be the nail in the coffin for the A380 in Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines today announced a firm order for 20 of the latest Boeing 777-9 and 19 additional Boeing 787-10 aircraft, a significant commitment to Boeing for a large chunk of it’s future fleet, which was originally announced as a provisional order back in February this year.

Boeing 787-10

The increase in the 787-10 order is probably the least interesting aspect of the announcement, as this is not a new type for the airline with the first SIA 787-10 already built and arriving early next year, though it takes SIA’s order from 30 to 49 in totalOur recent article on the Singapore 787-10 explains the medium-haul focus for this new jet in the Singapore Airlines fleet, on routes up to eight hours.

A total fleet of 49 787-10s will allow the airline to replace all A330-300, 777-200, 777-300, and potentially allow some of the A350-900 aircraft (those being delivered in ‘regional configuration’ next year) to be returned to a longer-range fit, for which they are probably better suited.

Boeing 777-9

Here’s where it gets more interesting. The 777-9 will be the largest twin-jet Boeing has ever built. Based on the 777-300ER, but with new more efficient engines, the 777-9 is also 2.8 metres longer than it’s predecessor, and has a wider cabin and greater range.

A massive plane, it will be the longest in the world when it enters service, beating the current Boeing 747-8 title holder by an extra half-metre. With a wider and longer cabin, the 777-9 can hold up to 414 passengers in a typical 2-class layout or 349 in a 3-class configuration, with a fuel burn per seat reduction of 20% compared to the 777-300ER.

We’re going to stick our neck out on this and say, although the airline probably won’t admit it, the 777-9 is an A380 replacement for Singapore Airlines. An order for 20 is no coincidence (SIA is holding a fleet of 19 A380s for now), and the delivery timing of the 777-9 will start to coincide with another batch of A380 leases coming to an end in 2021.

“We’re going to stick our neck out on this, the 777-9 is an A380 replacement for Singapore Airlines”

Many commentators are reporting this order as a loss for Airbus because the alternative choice would be their A350-1000, but that’s nonsensical. If SIA were looking for an aircraft the size of an A350-1000 (the largest model offered in the A350 family), they would probably order an A350-1000.

The 777-9 is a much bigger plane, with capacity for 50-60 more passengers (16% more), while featuring similar range. Airbus simply does not offer a twin-jet in this category.

No, the big loser from this order is the A380, not the A350. If SIA replace their entire A380 fleet by the time all 20 777-9s are delivered (and we think they probably will), that’ll mean they will have retired a total of 24 of the super-jumbos from service, a bitter blow for the A380 program which is already struggling to secure new customers and is now suffering from a second-hand supply to compete with.

acft-a380-sunset2.jpg
SIA A380s could be flying into the sunset once brand new 777-9s start arriving in 2021
(Photo: Maarten Visser)

SIA has always struggled to find a consistent market for 19 A380s. With the exception of a few key routes it has appeared and disappeared on several city pairs over the years, and often on a seasonal basis in certain markets. This may seem like a logical shifting of capacity to match demand; it could also indicate some desperation to make money with this plane, with continual route experimentation.

The airline recently passed on the opportunity to increase its A380 fleet to 24, the original total SIA order, preferring instead to return the oldest five aircraft to their leasing companies and stay with a fleet of 19, not exactly a ringing endorsement from the type’s launch customer.

We aren’t mad…

The 777-9 is obviously not a directly comparable replacement for the A380, which still provides 30% more capacity. The question is one of economics. Apart from on a few routes, we think Singapore Airlines struggle to find a consistent market for the giant A380. Competition in SIA’s key markets is intensifying and many routes suffer from overcapacity. Even they admit this.

The 777-9 will still offer a high-capacity aircraft, but critically a far better fuel efficiency per passenger than the A380. It will also be less exposed to seasonal and weaker markets in an age of increasing competition. Finally it has, neatly, a very similar published range as the A380 at 7,600 nautical miles. Currently the longest SIA route on the A380 is Singapore to London – at 5,900 nautical miles.

Given the situation, we think SIA will be happy to move out of the A380 market, and the 777-9 is their answer.

How will the 777-9 be configured?

It’s too early to tell, and the airline probably hasn’t even made a final decision, but we think they will want to keep their flagship ‘Suites’ class on the aircraft, particularly if it does indeed eventually replace the A380.

No big change in business would be likely before 2021, so the latest soon-to-be-announced product is expected which will probably occupy a similar footprint to the current seat.

SIA has shied away from a 10-abreast configuration in economy on the 777 to date, unlike many airlines now fitting this as standard such as Emirates and Air France. The 777-9 cabin fuselage will be nine inches wider than the 777-300ER, so we think a 3-4-3 configuration is likely in the SIA economy cabin, taking advantage of the increased width and in common with the current A380 main deck layout.

Who else has ordered the 777X?

All three of the major gulf carriers have committed to the 777X family (collectively made up of the 777-8 and 777-9), with some large order totals (Emirates 150, Qatar 60, Etihad 25). Cathay Pacific has ordered 21, while SIA joins both ANA and Lufthansa in ordering 20 each.

When will we start seeing these planes?

The first deliveries to Singapore Airlines are slated for 2021, but the first prototype 777-9 should take to the skies sometime in 2019, with delivery to launch customer Lufthansa planned for December that year. As with most new aircraft programs, expect some slippage with the dates.

Summary

The 787-10 is now clearly going to be king of the regional fleet. It looks like a great plane and will have flat-bed seats and WiFi. It’s not out of the question that some of these aircraft could go to budget subsidiary Scoot, but there’s no indication of that at this stage.

It’s a sad conclusion, but we do feel the 777-9 announcement marks the “beginning of the end of the road” for the A380 in Singapore Airlines. We’ll be keeping a close eye on further developments, particularly the proposed cabin layout of this new aircraft, before it arrives in 2021. If ‘Suites’ are installed, it’s almost certainly the end for the A380. Stay tuned and we’ll keep you posted, as soon as we know.

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