The Pros And Cons Of Boeing Building The 797/NMA

With the 737 MAX still pegged to be ungrounded by the middle of the year and the 777X successfully completing its first flights, Boeing’s attention will soon turn to the next clean sheet project on the cards. But what will it be?

Should Boeing still build the 797? Photo: DJ’s Aviation via YouTube

For the longest time, we’ve awaited a firming up of the designs for a New Midsize Airplane (NMA), affectionately dubbed the 797. Boeing has been floating the idea of this aircraft for many years, but has yet to make a formal announcement or reveal any specific characteristics of the design.

Speculators suggest it would be a small widebody, around 250 seats in capacity, which could fly to distances ranging from 4,000 to 5,000 nautical miles. It would sit between the largest of the 737 MAX jets, the MAX 10, and the smallest of the Dreamliner variants, the 787-8, in the Boeing lineup, filling a gap that is perceived to be in high demand by airlines in the future.

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Smaller than a 787-8 but larger than a MAX 10, the 797 fills a gap in the market. Photo: AerCap

However, since new boss Dave Calhoun took charge at the start of the year, the project has been under serious threat. Within days of starting in his role, Calhoun threw out the ideas for the 797 that were already on the table, and stated that the company would be reviewing the direction of its product line thoroughly over the coming months.

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So, should Boeing still build the 797, or are its attentions best focused elsewhere?

Pros of building the 797

The NMA was originally intended to plug a gap in the market which will be left by the aging fleet of 767s as they begin to retire. This logic is still as valid today as it was when the 797 was conceived, but what other reasons are there to build it?

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  • It completes the Boeing portfolio: The gap in Boeing’s product lineup means airlines are looking to its competitors to fill in the gap. From a business perspective, this isn’t good, and is doubtless something Boeing wants to address so that it can offer a plane for every mission requirement.
  • Airlines still want it: Although some Boeing customers have sought a product solution from Airbus, some are still keenly waiting for the 797 announcement. Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian was reported by Bloomberg last year as saying that he hopes they will do it, and other Boeing customers doubtless feel the same.
  • The market is huge: The middle segment of the market is anticipated to have a demand of some 4,000 to 5,000 aircraft over the next 20 years. It is valued at $1.5 trillion, and clearly Boeing would be silly to not attempt to take a piece of this pie.
Boeing 767
Many airlines are still seeking a replacement for the 767. Photo: Getty

Cons of building the 797

While there are still some valid points to be made in support of the NMA, there is also a growing base of evidence that it is simply not needed anymore. For example:

  • Airbus already offered a solution: Airbus has launched an attack on the middle of the market niche with its own A321XLR, announced at last year’s Paris Air Show. While it’s not a widebody, it does tick many of the boxes airlines are considering when looking for a midsized replacement.
  • Airbus covered the upper end too: Along with the launch of the XLR, Airbus has also recently achieved certification for its smallest widebody, the A330-800. Again, this smaller widebody isn’t entirely the NMA package, but it does tick a number of boxes for a suitable 767 replacement.
  • Boeing needs a new small airplane more: The bread and butter of Boeing’s business is built on the 737. With the MAX already distrusted around the world, and essentially a compromise between a 70-year-old airframe and the wonders of modern technology, a clean sheet reworking of Boeing’s short-haul line has been needed for quite some time. Maybe the manufacturer’s attention would be better spent on this area of its business.
  • The world needs more innovation: Considering the amount of time it takes for a clean sheet design to achieve certification and to enter production, at a minimum we’ll be looking at 2030 or later before any new aircraft take to the skies. By then, it would be hoped manufacturers would be innovating a bit harder to bring us less polluting, more efficient and more modern aircraft, perhaps something along the lines of the TTBW or Airbus’ blended wing concept.
Boeing TTBW
Perhaps what the world really needs is a complete rethink of aircraft design. Photo: Boeing

Overall, Boeing has a great opportunity ahead of it to set the aviation world up with a product it really needs. With pressure to become more environmentally friendly, whether airlines need an NMA/797 right now is up for debate. Perhaps Boeing’s efforts would be better concentrated on developing an aircraft that is fit for the future, rather than just yet another size of aircraft that is largely the same as everything in the skies today.

What do you think? Should Boeing still focus attention on the 797, or are its energies better off spent elsewhere?

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Trent

I started off reading this with a huuuuuuge eye roll. Another speculation story about the NMA. But, really, Joanna did a nice job of rolling it all together.

JFP

Boeing needs to worry more about being in business next week than ten years from now. Thanks to the PC government killing the 737 MAX, Boeing’s brand legend is only slightly better than that of the Corvair. Since Airbus has successfully sold band-aid solutions to the middle of market segment, Boeing should survey the market and produce an aircraft that will sell. Problem s, there isn’t one. There are three problems here. First, the Boeing name. Right now, if supermarket shelves were filled with Boeing-branded TP, the packs would stay on the shelves. Boeing has largely lost the trust of the marketplace. That isn’t coming back. Ever. Their only hope is to do what Valujet did to restore their business. Buy a lesser-known company in an allied field, and do a “reverse-merger” by taking the name of that company. Put the Boeing name to rest. The second thing Boeing needs to do is to realize that in a post-Coronvairus world, there will be much less demand for air travel. Between the inevitable escalation of already overpriced airfares, travel fear, further service degradation, travel restrictions, and societal elimination of the last justification for business travel -the handshake-, the world could easily see a return to pre-747 1960’s passenger numbers, at best. Even the A321XLR will often have trouble making a break-even passenger load. There will also be a reduced number of airline customers in the future as Coronavirus will eliminate not just the failing, but the weakened. Boeing also needs to remember the success of the 747-SP and L-1011-500 when it comes to the temptation of shrinking airframes. Therefore, Calhoun was right to k**l the NMA. Not worth it. Not now. Not ever. By not telling customers 15-20 years ago, “no more 737’s’, Boeing did the anatomically impossible. Finally as for Ed Bastian and Delta “wanting to be the launch customer for the Boeing NMA”, I would take that with a boulder of salt. I don’t see Delta ever again buying an aircraft that doesn’t have an Airbus label on it.

Rishaban

I think Airlines must just consider the A330-800 than wait for the 797
Could talk a lot of time to get certified in the given conditions

Cecil Warner

This was a good article, but I thought this was to solve the 757 issue.

JeffinMass

Boeing has issues. Major issues. The MAX has to be their priority and pax willing to fly on it first. Behind the scenes is the NMA to little to late? Boeing sat and watched as Airbus blew by them with the A321XLR. Problem? That aircraft is no B757 replacement. Just an alternative because Boeing doesn’t have anything in the market. If they did and the MAX issues weren’t going on Boeing will sell many NMAs.

iflyfar

Really? Boeing will be focused exclusively on just staying afloat and trying to figure out what to do with a glut of planes in storage that no one wants or can afford. Enough of the speculation stories.

WordsMatter

The only hope Boeing has of regaining any semblance of its former self is to offer an NMA and a new 737 or a new series that combines both. Aircraft sales in general may take a long while to recover from the Covid-19 slump anyway and Airbus products are more likely to take up any initial slack. This is by no means a good situation but it is as good as it’s going to get to set that new course of action.

WordsMatter

… also, there is no reason to think Airbus isn’t already working on something new.

Keith M

Since the 1980’s, the technological advances in aircraft design have been incremental (yes – that includes the shift to composite materials). Every new airliner coming off the drawing board and into production is a twin-jet tube that cruises at 0.85M with gas-burning turbines. The NMA would simply be an iterative gap-fill for the B757; granted, this is a huge addressable market, but the long-term innovation strategy for game-changing leaps leaves a lot to be desired. That’s the unfortunate symptom of a company with accountants at the helm, as opposed to engineers.

Satishkumar

We do no longer require a single isle flying cylinder offering cramped economy class with two toilets at rear and passengers struggling mid air to get to it. Aircraft manufacturers need to work on designs that is safe and healthy fit.A twin aisle aircraft in a 5000 nm category with appropriate attention to economy passengers needs should fit the bill.Renaming of existing aircraft with stretchable cramped versions must be avoided.

Hank

It’s within the companies interest to compete in all segment. Boeing can’t go wrong on the midrange airplane. Delta needs the 767 replacement as of yesterday.

Rod Abid

They had a mid-market Dreamliner right? The 787-3

Rod Abid

They had a mid-market Dreamliner right? The 787-3…