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?
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.
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.
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?
- 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.
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.
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?