Could Boeing Create The NMA/797 With A 787-3?

At the turn of the new decade, Boeing very decisively shelved all plans for the 797, or New Midsize Airplane (NMA). With the MAX and the 777X issues to deal with, it just wasn’t the time or the place. But could another previously shelved design end up being a ready-made NMA for the future? Could the 787-3 be reinvented as the middle market solution that the industry needs?

787 Boeing
Could the forgotten 787-3 become the NMA? Photo: Eric Prado via Wikimedia

Abandoning the NMA

The ‘New Midsize Airplane’ or NMA, dubbed by some the Boeing 797, is a project that is pretty much dead in the water right now. Boeing has too much on its plate readying the MAX for return to service, not to mention getting the 777X out the door, to turn its attention to a brand new type.

Originally conceived to be a small twin-aisle aircraft, the 797 was set to plug the gap between the smallest Dreamliner and the largest MAX. It’s a gap that hasn’t been adequately filled since the twin 757/767 combo was developed. Now, with technologies moving on at pace, Boeing saw an opportunity to fill this niche with something new and exciting.

However, following perhaps the worst year in the planemaker history (or second worst, depending on how 2020 plays out) and a change of CEO, the idea was thrown out. Incoming boss David Calhoun believed a fresh look at the project was required.

American Airlines A321XLR
The forthcoming A321XLR has put time pressure on Boeing. Photo: Airbus

With the niche set to be almost filled by the twin offerings of the A321XLR and the A330-800 from its European competitor, time is of the essence. A clean sheet design takes a long time to develop and would likely see the 767/757 replacements all signed up for with Airbus before Boeing got off the drawing board.

But what if it wasn’t a clean sheet design? What if Boeing could fill the gap with a derivative of something it already has?

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Boeing never built the 787-3

If you’ve never heard of the 787-3, we’ll forgive you. It was a pretty niche aircraft designed for a very specific market. Over in Japan, demand is (or was) so high, it’s not uncommon to see widebody aircraft deployed on relatively short routes. The 787-3 was conceived as a bespoke aircraft for this market, high capacity but short range.

During the evolution of the 747, this need was similarly catered for with the advent of the -100BSR SUD developed for Japan Air Lines. The stretched upper deck added more seats, with a loss in range that didn’t matter to the Japanese flag carrier. Other short-range variants (747SR) were launched too, with ANA and JAL flying 20 between them until as late as 2006.

JAL 747
Boeing created a special stretched upper deck variant of the 747 for JAL. Photo: Ellywa via Wikimedia

For this market, Boeing had floated the idea of the 787-3. This short-range Dreamliner would accommodate as many as 330 passengers with a range of 2,500 – 3,050 nautical miles. Initially, Boeing had sold 43 of the type to its target customers, ANA and JAL, but the plane never came to be.

In 2008, delays to the 787 program forced Boeing to consolidate its resources. In order to get the more widely-appealing 787-8 launched, resources were pulled from the 787-3 program. The delays caused both ANA and JAL to switch to the 787-8 instead and sealed the fate of the 787-3.

787-8 ANA
ANA and JAL went for the 787-8 instead. Photo: Masahiro TAKAGI via Wikimedia

Could the Boeing 787-3 become the NMA?

But the idea still has legs. In a post-COVID world, where airlines are trying to shuttle lower numbers of passengers in an incredibly cost-effective way on point to point routings more than hub and spoke, a lower capacity, high-efficiency Dreamliner could be just the ticket. Take some weight out, give it the latest engines and you’ve pretty much got your 797 right there.

Could the 787-3 be resurrected? Photo: Altair78 via Wikimedia

And the idea has some high-level support too. Speaking to Airline Ratings in an interview, CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, believed that the NMA should be based on this plane. Specifically, he told the publication,

“787-3 with a new lighter wing and derated engines would be an excellent platform.”

For the time being, Boeing has bigger fish to fry. But once the current issues are ironed out, its likely attention will once again turn to the next new airplane to come out of the stable. A modified, reinvented 787-3 could be just the plane Boeing needs to get back on its feet.