Boeing successfully staged the first flight of the world’s largest twin-engine jetliner on Saturday in a respite from the crisis over its smallest model, the grounded 737 MAX.
The 777X, a larger version of the 777 mini-jumbo, touched down at historic Boeing Field outside Seattle after a debut four hours earlier at Boeing’s revamped wide-body assembly lines.
The decision to take advantage of a gap in clouds to start months of testing before the jet can carry passengers came after two attempts were postponed due to high winds.
“It’s a proud day for us,” said Stan Deal, chief executive of Boeing’s commercial airplane unit.
As the 252-foot-long aircraft – the longest commercial jet by a whisker – stopped before waiting VIPs, rows of undelivered 737 MAX stood idle in a reminder of the crisis that engulfed Boeing since it was grounded last year.
“It made all our employees proud again of who we are and what we do, by flying a brand new airplane that is going to change the world one more time,” Deal said.
The aircraft is the larger of two versions planned by Boeing and will officially be called 777-9, but is better known under its development codename, 777X.
Hallmarks include folding wingtips – designed to allow its carbon wings to fit the same parking bays as earlier models – and the world’s largest commercial engines from General Electric, wide enough to swallow a 737 MAX fuselage.
While eyeing hundreds of sales, Boeing’s new 406-seater must overcome hurdles from regulators and buyers.
The 777X will be the first major aircraft to be certified since software flaws in two fatal 737 MAX crashes prompted accusations of cosy relations between Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration and heralded tougher scrutiny.
The FAA pledged to ensure the 777X review is conducted rigorously, while launch customer Emirates wants the aircraft to be put through “hell on Earth” testing to ensure it is safe and meets performance expectations.
Boeing’s chief test pilot, who co-piloted Saturday’s sortie, said it would work closely with regulators.
“We are going to follow normal processes and work with the FAA and they are going to work hand-in-hand with us,” Craig Bomben told reporters.
“We took the time to get the airplane ready for the flight test so I think we are going to march through flight tests successfully and quickly and get it certified to the FAA standards.”
The 777X is expected to enter service in 2021, a year later than originally scheduled because of development snags.
It will compete with the Airbus A350-1000 which seats about 360 passengers. Big twinjets are steadily displacing older four-engined Boeing 747 and soon to be axed Airbus A380.
Experts cite worries about wide body demand due to overcapacity and economic weakness. Airlines cancelled more than twice as many big jets as they ordered last year, according to Rob Morris, consultancy chief at UK-based Ascend by Cirium.
Boeing says it has sold 309 777X – worth $442 million each at list price – many in industry question its dependence on Middle East carriers who are scaling back orders.
“Longer term, they’ll need more than those guys for that airplane. They’ll need big network carriers to find routes it works on,” said Aengus Kelly, chief executive of leasing giant AerCap.