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Boeing Unveils Its Jumbo Killer

The new 777X could make the largest megaplanes obsolete
Lufthansa announce ordering 59 wide-body Boeing Co. 777-9X aircraft in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sept. 19, 2013
Lufthansa announce ordering 59 wide-body Boeing Co. 777-9X aircraft in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sept. 19, 2013Photograph by Ralph Orlowski/Bloomberg

Boeing forever changed aviation in 1970 when it introduced its 747 jumbo jet, whose size and range revolutionized flying and became a cultural icon in the process. It’s since gone on to log orders for more than 1,500 of the humpbacked behemoth’s various models. But now the world’s No. 1 maker of commercial aircraft is poised to offer a model that may kill off its best-known creation.

Betting it can capture the operating economies of a huge plane in a smaller one, Boeing is undertaking a radical makeover of its smaller 777 jet that will be ready to take flight by decade’s end. The new 777X model will boast the biggest engines ever put on a plane, a record wingspan that can be shortened by having the tips fold up after landing, and lower operating costs. Cramming all this cost-saving technology into a smaller plane that operates with two engines—rather than the four needed by jumbos—could herald an end to the race to build ever-larger jets that’s driven much of modern aircraft design.