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Originally published March 2, 2012 at 7:38 PM | Page modified March 2, 2012 at 10:40 PM

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Emirates eager for updated 777, more visibility here

Middle Eastern airline's top executives want to buy revamped Boeing widebody, and they're looking at sponsorship opportunities to promote the Emirates brand, likely through soccer.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Emirates, the giant Middle Eastern airline that on Thursday launched daily service between Seattle and Dubai, has ever bigger expansion plans both for Boeing and for Seattle.

As part of a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign to promote its brand here, the airline is looking at a major sports sponsorship within the city — most likely for soccer.

That could put the Sounders at least metaphorically in the same league as London soccer club Arsenal, one of the glamour teams in the English Premier League, whose players wear the Emirates logo on their shirts and play in Emirates stadium.

As for Boeing, Emirates President Tim Clark said in an interview that the planned revamp of the 777 looks like a winner he is eager to buy.

He said the competing jet proposed by Airbus, the A350-1000, will have its own market niche but "doesn't quite stack up" against Boeing's so-called 777X update, planned for the end of the decade.

That's sweet music to the ears of Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Jim Albaugh, who said in Everett Friday that he will probably ask the Boeing board by year-end to approve offering the 777X to airlines.

After a celebration at the Everett widebody plant, where Boeing delivered to the airline the 1,000th 777 to come off the line, Emirates Chairman Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum and Clark were set to host a gala dinner Friday evening for 600 guests at the Washington State Convention Center.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, local dignitaries, travel-business officials and executives with 777 suppliers were invited, as well as a high-level government delegation from the United Arab Emirates. Entertainment was scheduled to include the Irish dancing show Riverdance and singer Tom Jones.

The only other widebody aircraft that have achieved the 1000th delivery milestone are Boeing's 747 and 767 jets. While those took 23 and 29 years respectively, the 777 got there in less than 17 years after its first delivery.

Last year Boeing won 200 orders for the 777, which sells for an estimated $162 million, according to aircraft-valuation firm Avitas. A quarter of those orders came from Emirates.

The 777's largest customer, Emirates currently operates 102 of the jets. It has 93 additional 777s on firm order.

As an influential customer, Clark has been vocal about his requirements for the next version of the 777: increased range and higher payload, but delivered in a lighter weight airplane for reduced fuel consumption.

He said Boeing is looking at revamping the airplane with a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic composite wing and a lighter aluminum-lithium alloy fuselage.

"They've had the wish list from us, and as far as I'm concerned they've just about ticked all the boxes," Clark said.

The success of the 777 has given Boeing a clear edge in the large widebody-jet market. Airbus, which has no competitive plane in that size category now, is pinning its hopes on the forthcoming A350-1000.

Clark said the delivery timetable of the Airbus jet is questionable. He also predicted that the 777X will outperform it.

"They're different airplanes," he said. The 777X "has greater legs, greater range, greater lift."

The specifications offered by Airbus for the A350 show that the plane will adequately cover up to 10-hour flights, Clark said. That currently encompasses 80 percent of the Emirates route network, he said, but the airline plans to shift more "into the 13-to-18 hour mission range."

"That's, frankly, where it doesn't quite stack up," Clark said.

Provided the price is right, Clark said he's ready to place an order. He said all that's needed is for Boeing to pull the trigger on the 777X plan, as it did last year for the 737 MAX.

"They've got everything they need ... to go to the board for a 2019 delivery," he said.

In the months leading up to the opening of the Seattle route Thursday, Emirates mounted a lavish marketing campaign featuring print and TV ads.

The airline spent $6 million to produce and air the TV ad, featuring computer-generated effects around the 777-300ER and emphasizing its local workforce. It spent an additional $2 million mainly on print advertising to market the Seattle launch.

Key targets are local software developers from the Indian subcontinent as well as corporate travelers — including Boeing executives.

"We should see healthy traffic to the Gulf, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and beyond," said Sheikh Al Maktoum.

Seattle is the sixth U.S. destination for Emirates, after the start of flights to Dallas last month. The sheikh said the airline is filling 85 percent of its seats out of Dallas since that route opened and will add two more U.S. gateways by the middle of next year.

Clark said that after the initial wave of publicity in this region, Emirates is actively "looking for more permanent (marketing) vehicles, such as soccer."

"In Seattle, it's bigger than most cities," he said. "That's an easy one for us, in the Seattle area, to look at more closely."

The Emirates brand isn't yet as big in America as it is in London, Mumbai or Sydney, but Clark intends to change that.

"Give it another three years and most people will know about us," he said.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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