Cathay announced it was adding to its existing A350XWB order by committing for six additional -900s. The airline now has 36 A350s on order plus two more committed via pre-arranged 12 years leases. These six aircraft are scheduled for delivery in 2016-17.
The selection of this airplane is important because Cathay Pacific is also a significant 777-300ER customer. The A350-900 falls between the 777-200 and 777-300 in size, with 314 seats, falling between the 301 and 365 capacities of the competing 777 models. The forthcoming A350XWB-1000, at 350 seats, will be closer to the 777-300ER, and could represent a potential replacement for that aircraft in the future.
This is certainly an interesting development, given that Boeing will be introducing its revised 777-8 and 777-9 shortly after that timeframe, although it is not expected that the re-engined version of the 777 will fully match the economics of the much lighter, heavily composite A350XWB.
Airlines that operate the 777 are typically very pleased with the airplane, which has been among Boeing’s best products. Cathay has been a particularly happy customer of the 777-300ER. Boeing’s revised 777-8 and -9 models will no doubt continue to build on the success of their -300ER, and we expect the 777-9 to be larger than the existing 777-300ER to improve seat-mile economics.
Cathay has ordered 71 777s so there is no doubting its current commitment to the airplane. But ordering the new technology A350XWB could mean a key conquest for Airbus in the large wide-body twin segment. It appears Cathay is planning on standardizing on the A350-900, and possibly the A350-1000 in the future, for the 300-350 seat segment.
In the next ten years it will be very interesting to find out how Airbus will have positioned the A350 against the 777, 777X and 787. It’s a big gamble for the Europeans. The 777 is very strong and could retain its dominance if Boeing pulls another ace with the 777X.
There are two possible scenarios. One is that the A350 will be squashed between the 787 variants and the 777X. Or, as Airbus saw it when they devised their strategy, the A350 variants will hit two birds with one stone and appropriate the upper market for themselves. But this is indeed a very risky proposition. The various A350 models would have to be far superior to the 777/787 combo to have a durable impact on that particular market. Boeing is already there and holds a dominant position, whereas Airbus is still trying to recover from their painful experience with the A345/6.
Boeing feels threatened by Airbus right now, but yet I believe the latter is still facing a much bigger challenge. Initially I was very enthusiastic about the A350. Now I think Boeing holds a safer, if not better, position. Airbus might be trying to accomplish too much with a single airframe. But we wont find out until all the cards are on the table.
The 777X remains undefined, but it will still be only an update of an existing platform. The issues are more complex on the 787. When the dust settles Boeing will be able to better asses the situation and make the appropriate moves. The A350 family is in now in a more advance stage and closer to inception. It was supposed to be a direct response to the 787 family, and at the same time a challenge to the 777. But now it seems the table has turned and Airbus ended up making the first moves. Boeing now only has to respond to whatever Airbus does with the A350 variants. In this scenario Boeing can afford to be late because on the short term the 777 has no direct competition and they accrue the orders in the meantime.
But if the Cathay commitment is any indication Boeing still has a lot of work to do to protect its turf.