By Dominic Gates

The Seattle Times

PARIS — Boeing’s big new 777X jet, the first of which rolled out of the Everett, Washington, assembly plant in early March, cannot fly until at least the fall because of a problem with the new GE9X engine.

The long delay is a blow to Boeing, already struggling to cope with the crisis in its single-aisle 737 MAX jet program. It threatens to postpone the plane’s entry into service, planned for the middle of next year, and will hit both Boeing’s airline customers and suppliers.

In a revelation that stunned journalists at the Paris Air Show, Bill Fitzgerald, the head of commercial jet engines at GE Aviation, said his engineers already have a fix. But extensive testing is required for certification of the engines before retrofitting the fix to the 18 engines already completed, 10 for flight tests and eight for production models.

Boeing won’t fly the 777X until the engine is certified, said GE Aviation chief executive David Joyce.

Fitzgerald said GE will “be in a position to complete the testing by the end of the year and have the plane fly by the end of the year.”

“We’re pretty confident we’ll get through the testing this year,” Fitzgerald said, then added what seemed to be his current thinking on the earliest it can be ready: “It’ll be later in the fall.”

Only after that can Boeing decide when it is going to fly the plane, he said.

That delay is far longer than anyone was anticipating, including the leadership of Gulf carrier Emirates, the first customer of the 777X.

In an interview Saturday, Emirates president Tim Clark said that he’d initially heard first flight had been pushed out to June 29, but that had slipped. He said then he hoped it would fly before he gets to Seattle to review the program in mid-July.

If it hasn’t, Clark said, that will begin to squeeze his timeline, which depends on taking delivery of the first 777X next June.

That now looks unlikely. It typically takes a year or more to go from first flight, through the certification of the airplane by the Federal Aviation Administration, to entry into service — assuming there are no unexpected hitches. On the 737 MAX program, for example, the plane entered commercial service 16 months after first flight.

Both GE and Boeing tried to play down the impact.

Ted Ingling, the general manager of the GE9X program, said Boeing has “always had a plan to get the 777X off the ground by the end of this year.”

Boeing’s suppliers will also be impacted by a 777X delay, particularly in Japan, where the 777 fuselage panels are made. In an interview at the Air Show, a senior Japanese industry executive, who requested anonymity to protect his relationship with Boeing, expressed great surprise at the news of the delay and said “it might cause us some problems in our factories.”

The bad 777X news in Paris follows earlier indications this month of a drop in demand for the airplane.