The Boeing 797 Could Revolutionize Air Travel – If It Gets Built

The proposed new midsize airplane (NMA) from Boeing, also known as the Boeing 797, promises to bring new capabilities and new benefits to air travel. From its potential one pilot operation to short haul twin aisle comfort, the 797 could be just what aviation needs. But questions remain over when it will be built, or indeed if, and whether operators can really wait that long.

What the B797 could look like. Source: Youtube DJ’s Aviation.
The 797 could be an amazing innovation for the future; if it ever happens. Photo: Youtube DJ’s Aviation.

While the continual Boeing news is all about the 737 MAX and getting that jet back into service, some airlines are waiting for news of a very different aircraft entirely. No, we’re not talking about the hotly anticipated 777X, a plane which has met with delay after delay; we’re talking about the next project after that – the ‘New Midsize Airplane’, also known as the 797.

When, and indeed if, the NMA comes to fruition, it could be a revolutionary aircraft for both airlines and passengers. Let’s take a look at how it could change operations, and whether it’s nothing but a middle sized pie in the sky.

Update: 03/10/2019 @ 18:22: Following a discussion with Boeing, we have removed all references to a one pilot operation. Boeing’s statement on this rumor is as follows:

“We remain focused on executing on our commitments, including evaluating the business case for the NMA. With that said, should we launch, the NMA flight deck is being designed for two pilots and we’ve been consistent that we don’t see NMA as a technology push airplane,” Boeing statement to CNBC.

What’s good about the proposed NMA?

If and when the 797 is developed, early indications are that it will be a plane that is loved by both airlines and passengers. So far, we know it’s going to be a middle-of-the-range airplane, with a capacity for 220-270 passengers and a range somewhere in the region of 5,000 nmi. In theory, it should slot neatly between the 737 and 787 families, to cater to that middle section of the market.

Boeing overhead bin
Larger overhead bins and twin aisle access means faster embarkation. Photo: Boeing

For passengers, the 797 promises to bring widebody comfort to point to point routes. The 2-3-2 layout will go some way to eliminating the economy crush, with bigger overhead bins and less traffic in the aisle.  Most importantly, the aircraft is perfectly suited to underserved or unserved routes, a figure that Boeing puts at 30,000 city pairs, potentially boosting connectivity for passengers from less urban areas.

There’s a benefit for airlines too, in terms of operational cost, as the high fuel efficiency of the 797 would make it an attractive proposition for the medium-haul market.

Is it needed?

In short; yes. As the only like-for-like replacement for the popular Boeing 757 and 767 range, the 797 has been a long time coming or some operators.

United Airlines, for example, operates a fleet of 76 757s and 54 767s, all of which are averaging over 22 years old. Icelandair’s huge fleet of 27 Boeing 757s average almost 24 years of age, and are frequently plagued with reliability issues.

United Boeing 767-300ER
United maintains an aging fleet of 767s. Photo: United Airlines

The biggest beneficiary of the 797, however, is arguably Delta Air Lines, with their fleet of almost 200 757 and 767 aircraft in total. Averaging 22.1 years old across the two types, Delta is close to desperate to replace these aircraft, but nothing short of the proposed 797 really fills the niche.

Just this week, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian has said he will wait for the 797 to replace Delta’s aging 757 and 767 fleet. Speaking to Bloomberg, he said,

Video of the day:

“I do anticipate they will do it. I hope they will do it. We have a significant need between the retirements of the 757 and 767 fleets. That’s almost 200 aircraft over the next decade.”

Delta 757
Delta loves its 757s, but is waiting for the 797 replacement. Photo: Delta

Too little, too late?

Although Boeing’s heart is in the right place, one has to wonder, are they going to be too late to the party? The worldwide fleet of 757s and 767s are pushing 20 years of age on average, and airlines are actively looking to the world’s two biggest planemakers for a replacement.

Airbus has not exactly developed an NMA alternative. What they’ve said in the past is that a combination of their smallest A330, combined with the largest, extra-long range version of their A320 family, the A321XLR, between them tick most of the boxes for 757 and 767 replacement. More importantly, they are available now, require no retooling or rectification for airlines and pilots and are real, not a mere boardroom daydream.

Concept A321XLR in flight
The A321XLR isn’t quite the NMA solution, but it’s ready now. Photo: Airbus

In just the past week, staunch Boeing loyalist SpiceJet has revealed an interest in the Airbus A320 family. In light of the MAX fiasco, and with no progress becoming apparent on the 797, SpiceJet is mulling a massive order of an Airbus manufacturer alternative.

On the 24th September, Ajay Singh, chairman of SpiceJet, told Bloomberg that the airline is looking to the Airbus A321XLR as a potential solution to the NMA gap. Although SpiceJet itself does not have any 757s or 767s to retire, it is nonetheless seeking international expansion, but with something smaller (and less expensive) than the Dreamliner family.

As a result of Airbus’ early entry into the NMA market, the European planemaker has offered a revised estimate of the market for Boeings 797. They are under no illusions that they are already taking the early market by storm, and will continue to do so for some time. As such, Airbus, as reported by Flight Global, has published a revised 797 demand estimate of around 2,500 aircraft, at best. This is significantly less than the 4,000 – 5,000 that Boeing originally estimated.

What’s keeping them?

With Airbus seemingly steamrollering into the NMA space with their combination of a long range A321 and a smaller A330, shouldn’t Boeing be pulling out all the stops to get their concept onto the table? You’d think so, but over in the US, the planemaker has some other bugbears to contend with.

Boeing 777x
After the 737 MAX, the 777X will be monopolizing Boeing’s time. Photo: Boeing

To put it simply, there’s a to-do list on Muilenburg’s desk, and it starts with the 737 MAX. Once that issue is resolved, it will be full steam ahead to get the 777X certified in time for its anticipated 2021 entry into service. When the ball is well and truly rolling on this, then and only then will attention turn to any new aircraft being added to the stable.

While Boeing may not have yet completely missed the boat, they are starting out on the back foot. Airbus’ solutions do not, by any means, tick all the boxes, and it’s almost guaranteed that Boeing’s NMA will be far and away the better solution for the aircraft gap. It all comes down to just how long operators can continue to limp forward with aging mid-sized jets, and whether they are willing or able to wait.

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Trent

Two pilots in the cockpit please.

Not 100% on-board with Boeing’s computer assistance controls at the moment.

Richard Allison

As an 757/767-200 replacement the 321xlr is perfect. Airbus should create a 330 that has less powerful engines, less fuel capacity and a modified wing. Even is that is just an a330-800 light to reduce the fuel consumption it will fly off the shelf with carriers like delta who fly a320 and a330 so no training is required.

PAUL VINCI

321 does not have enough wing, brakes or tires (surface contact area) to replace the 757. Be careful and patient as you wait to deplane on that overstretched single isle. 321 is bad enough now; 757-300 (stretch) was a failure as well. Turn times = money.

George Maccarone

From their obsession with outsourcing that resulted in the Rube Goldberg supply chain for the 787, followed by their “finger-in-the-dike” introduction of the 737MAX to their inexplicable dithering over bringing the 797 to market, Boeing’s senior management couldn’t do a better job of torpedoing their company if they were being paid to do it.

Chuck

A wish list for the NMA: 1) carbon fiber – this technology is fully matured and needs to be included (see #6 below for customer comfort and #5 for distance) 2) high bypass engines – If the A220 can achieve engine bypass ratio of near 12 to 1, so can the NMA (if not better) 3) Complete Fly by Wire – the 737 still uses pulleys & cables for control surfaces 4) Room to grow – A 800 and 900 series would be fine (220 thru 260 PAX) 5) Long Legs – LAX to Heathrow, JFK to Tel Aviv, etc… Read more »

Chris

Please make it carbon fibre- I am a big fan of Airbus and I would love to see them struggle to do it with carbon fibre on budget.

Abe

I think you’ve forgotten that number one on the wish-list is that airlines want to pay less than $70m for the plane. I doubt you can achieve much on the list for the price. Also, if they still think that they can roll out this plane (using new tech and production methods) in 5 years time as they insist, they are smoking the good stuff.

Tom

Carbon fiber, single pilot and single engine would be great. Two pilots can crash a plane just as easily as one. Find an economical way to have two engines for t/o and landing, but just one while flying.

BobT

The odds of 2 pilots both having heart attacks (or strokes, or choking on their dinner, or…) during a flight are, essentially, zero. The odds of one doing so are not.

Eric

“One pilot operation” will cause other disasters. It is the most dangerous scenario for air travel.
Remember these news:
“Co-pilot lands plane at PDX after pilot loses consciousness”
https://katu.com/news/local/co-pilot-lands-plane-at-pdx-after-pilot-loses-consciousness-11-23-2015
“Passenger lands plane instead of fainted pilot in UK”
https://tass.com/world/701999
“Hero passenger lands light aircraft at Humberside airport after pilot friend passes out at the controls”
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/hero-passenger-lands-light-aircraft-at-humberside-airport-after-pilot-friend-passes-out-at-the-8868202.html
It looks that Boeing 797 will be second great fiasco for Boeing after 737 MAX.
Nowadays there is a loud voice in my mind and shouting that “If it is a Boeing then I am NOT going!”

David

You can technically fly pretty much any modern airplane solo. No airline–or the FAA for that matter–would allow a plane to go with one pilot in the cockpit. Absolutely ridiculous.

Rich Bell

Agree with cost savings on a lighter frame and improved engines. Having only one pilot on board is ridiculous in terms of saving on a salary.
It is vital that the each pilot cross checks the other in terms of a flawless operation.
Safety first!!

Ellerby

gladly pay an extra $20 for a second pilot.

Paul Proctor

Boeing has about 150,000 employees, including thousands of engineers. Not all of them are working on the MAX, and I would argue the bulk of the engineering on the 777X has been completed. I am sure work continues apace on the ‘797’ behind the scenes and the company will announce progress on it once the 737 MAX is flying. Think about it. It would be impolitic if Boeing announced major progress or launch of a new, relatively unknown jetliner product while MAX was still grounded. I posit the ‘797’ will be publicized immediately after MAX starts flying again, and Boeing… Read more »

Ralph Mohler

So let me understand.. the pilot has a heart attack and the first officer on the ground is going to pick up the slack… or is Boeing thinking that they will train the flight attendants to land the plane… I can’t imagine the FAA or any other regulatory agency agreeing to the one pilot on board concept… better to not even suggest it. What ever savings there may be in the one pilot onboard concept I think the flying public will definitely not cozy up to the concept especially after the 737 MAX that managed to crash with two pilots… Read more »

Andy

One pilot? No way I’ll be flying on one! Things can go badly awry with two pilots, so heaping all the responsibility on one crew member is a bad move!

Dustin

Boeing branded parachutes for all souls on board!

BobT

#1 — No copilot? No ticket purchase from me. #2 — Boeing needs to scrap the 737MAX, return all the money to all past purchasers of that ill-conceived, band-aided deathtrap, and invest its remaining billions into the 797 development. Boeing will survive, and, without the MAX, so will we.

Abe

Except if they scrap the MAX they will have no small single aisle plane?

Mr. White

New trend will be 0 pilots. All automated. Get in.

JJH

Boeing’s top priority should be to launch a substitute for the 737. Too much of the 737 dates back to the Dash80 and the 707, a design of the early ’50s. They never dreamed to reach the one-thousand mark on the 737 production line. It’s high time!

Michael Pearce

There’s no point talking about it, nothing will happen until at least the MAX is back in service and all the related issues to do with long-term storage are ironed out, and once the 777X issues begin to get resolved. By which time it will be 2020, and there is no way Boeing can develop and get into service a brand-new clean-sheet in five years. Plus there isn’t much of a market for it anyway, only the US3 have showed interest and two of them have orders for the A321neo series to replace 757s.

Shapes

If and when the max gets back into service it will fundamentally be a very old design with a stigma airlines will find hard to shake off. If the ge9x encounters more hiccups then the 777x may become just a concept or museum piece. What will boing sell then? It has no viable aircraft portfolio for the next 5 10 or 20 years. It should have started designing the NMA many many years ago.
I think boing has missed the boat.

Ricport

Will this proposed twin-aisle jet be able to land at large-city, short-runway airports like DCA? You know, like the 757 can? Boeing already has the 787 & 777; thus, they already have the widebody market covered. Airbus has a 757 replacement – the 321 series. Boeing should make a large, single-aisle aircraft with a mid-cabin door to compete with the 321 (I know, the XLR doesn’t have one, but the rest do).