On the surface, this seems ludicrous, since the A350 will be significantly lighter in structure and will benefit from new materials technology as well as an improved wing and engine. Even if you don't believe the 25% cheaper claims Airbus makes in terms of seat-costs and fuel-burn for the A350 vs. the 777, the A350 will still be measurably better.
And yet... Could Boeing pull it off?
In this discussion - EK: Door Is Still Open To Boeing Despite A350 Deal (by EI321 Nov 17 2007 in Civil Aviation) - Alangirvan posted the following quote from an interview by Flight's Geoffrey Thomas with Boeing's Scot Carson:
"Boeing is also working on engine and aerodynamic improvements in the 777-300ER and 777-200LR aircraft," according to Mr Carson.
"We (Boeing and GE) are working on improvements from the GEnx (for the 787) program into the GE90," Carson said.
He also noted that Boeing was fine-tuning the aerodynamics of the aircraft and expected to offer airlines a package that would match the promised seat mile costs of the newly launched A350-1000 years before that aircraft entered service.
In the longer term, Boeing is considering its options for a replacement for the 777 that would possibly enter service in the 2015-2018 time frame."
BlueSky1976 added that if Boeing decides to give 777 a brand new composite wing, it would extend the market life of the 777 family by at least another 20 years.
In that same thread, JoeCanuck postulated:
If Boeing can indeed improve the 777 performance levels to match the 350, and can keep it cheap enough, why wouldn't airlines buy it? Most of the savings in the 350 will come from the engines. It's definitely in GE's best interest, as well as Boeings.
GE continues to be publicly non-committal on powering the A350, while continuing to extol the virtues of the LR777 and GE90-11xB family available today.
While it does seem unlikely Boeing could match the A350 in performance across-the-board, could they develop a lighter 777 structure and give it a new wing and improved engines and get close?
Al-Li alloys have advanced a great deal since the early 1990's when they were first considered for the 777 and would create a lighter and stronger frame. And techniques like laser welding or friction-stirred welding (FSW) would result in a smoother surface (less rivets) and would reduce labor costs and assembly times. And improved use of composites would help reduce weight even more as well as lower maintenance costs.
The GE90 has been superseded by two generations of GE engines (GP7000 and GEnx), yet a number of the technologies introduced with those two generations can likely be implemented in the GE90, lowering SFC and noise.
A new wing design - even if not produced out of CFRP - would improve field, climb and cruise performance and result in less thrust, noise, and fuel burn then the current 77L and 77W.
If Boeing could lower seat-costs and fuel burn by up to 10% and increase range to 8000nm (matching the A350-1000), it might be the "safe bet" for many existing 777 operators over the A350 and could give Boeing the "breathing room" they need until around 2020 to launch Y3 as a true 777 replacement with a 350 and 400 seater along with an "Special Performance" 300 seater with sufficient range to link any two cities on the globe 365-days a year at nominal payload.
The key, of course, is the money and the time. Even minor updates could be hundreds of millions and going for a significant overhaul will be in the billions. Boeing is still looking at a couple hundred 777 sales even if they do nothing and they can add even more by lowering the price on each sale as the A350's EIS approaches.
And yet, a 777NG can be developed and brought to market much quicker then a 787HGW, to say nothing of a true replacement (Y3). It is based on a design both proven and popular. And it is wider, which allows 10-abreast Economy and 7-abreast Business seating for fitting more passengers in similar physical seat comfort to the A350.