The Boeing New Midsize Airplane (NMA), dubbed the ‘797’ by many, is a much needed and eagerly anticipated new product. However, with worries about the impact that the 737 MAX crisis is having at Boeing, and a recent managerial reshuffle, carriers are looking to the planemaker for more clarity on the timescales for the project.
Just over a week ago, the vice president and general manager of Boeing’s NMA development was switched into position as the lead on the 737 MAX program. Mark Jenks stepped into the shoes of Eric Lindblad, as the head of the MAX program took planned retirement, leaving the leadership position of the 797 team open for fresh talent.
Taking up the helm of the NMA development is Mike Sinnett, an 18 year Boeing veteran who has previously worked on projects including the 787, the 747 and the 737NG. However, rather than moving directly into the 797 program, Sinnett is taking on this role alongside his current duties as VP of Product Strategy and Future Airplane Development, which he’s been doing since 2017.
With the added responsibility of leading the NMA program, Sinnett’s official title is now Vice President and General Manager, NMA Program, Product Strategy & Future Airplane Development Commercial Airplanes. That’s a very long title and a thin spread of talent across a broad scope of responsibilities. Understandably, it’s got some questioning what’s really happening with the 797.
United gave Boeing a prod
According to reporting by Bloomberg, United Airlines have been getting twitchy about where Boeing is at with the 797 development. Amidst the current 737 MAX crisis, the US carrier is worried that the timescales for the NMA could be slipping and has given the planemaker a prod to see what’s occurring.
The issue for United and many other carriers is that they are desperate to put in place a renewal plan for their fleets of aging 757 and 767 aircraft. These planes are starting to present problems, with an AD being issued just this week for the 757, and an NPRM just days before, which will cover both models.
Maintenance means downtime, and downtime means loss of money and disruption to schedules. While the 757 and 767 have been great workhorses for carriers all over the world, their operators are now keen to see the back of them, or at least to have a strategy for their replacement firmed up. United Chief Financial Officer Gerry Laderman said in a conference call this week,
“We would like to see some clarity so that we can make the choice … But we do have a little bit of time.”
But how much time?
The fleet of aging 757s and 767s is no small matter. For the 757s, latest estimates put the worldwide fleet at 664 still in operation. The United States is home to the bulk of these, with 76 in United’s fleet, 34 in American’s and 127 still flying for Delta. For the 767, there are around 742 still in service today, 51 at United, 79 at Delta and 24 at American. In the US alone, the market for the NMA has a potential to be well over 300 aircraft, so these carriers are looking to its homegrown plane maker to deliver at timescales that are right for them.
Iceland Monitor reports that Icelandair met with both Boeing and Airbus at the end of last month. With a fleet of 27 757s and four 767s, this is another carrier who is starting to become concerned about its future fleet renewal. Clearly, if the timescales for Boeing’s NMA don’t fit into their schedule, the carrier will be looking to Airbus for an alternative solution.
It’s not just airlines who are getting twitchy about the 2025 launch date for the NMA. Back in May, Analysts at Jefferies were reported by CNBC as anticipating a push back of the project. Jefferies analysts Sheila Kahyaoglu and Greg Konrad wrote in a note to investors that,
“There has been a lot of speculation about a potential NMA launch, although tempered by the 737 MAX grounding. However, this appears pushed out [with its entry into service] from 2025 likely extending to 2028.”
Other analysts have been casting similar aspersions on the timescale of the project. Bank of America’s Ron Epstein is quoted by Bloomberg as saying that the appointment of Sinnett as the lead on the project,
“…seems a clear sign that the NMA program is on ice. While this doesn’t imply the NMA program won’t happen, it now appears it won’t happen anytime soon.”
Boeing is now under additional pressure to firm up a date for the NMA launch since Airbus announced the A321XLR at the Paris Air Show. While the XLR doesn’t completely fill the shoes of an NMA contender, it goes a very long way towards it and could be a worthy successor to the 757 and 767.
Boeing has said all along that it will decide by 2020 whether it will go ahead and launch the NMA. Clearly, airlines are hoping for something a bit firmer than that so that they can put their worries about future fleet needs to rest.
Simple Flying has reached out to Boeing for comment and will update once a response is received.