Boeing scrapped plans for the NMA even before COVID. Now, with travel demand and the aviation industry set to be changed forever, does the NMA make more sense or less? Will Boeing ever pursue a midsized aircraft again?
A defining year
In any other industry, a year would fly by with little unchanged. For aviation, however, 12 months has been just about enough to completely change the world forever. No one business has felt the curse of 2019/20 more acutely than US planemaker Boeing.
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Following the second crash of its flagship narrowbody 737 MAX, the subsequent grounding was assumed to be a short-term hiccup in the planemaker’s plan. However, by this time last year, the gravity of the situation was beginning to sink in. Beginning to realize that the MAX was a problem that wasn’t going away fast, Boeing paused work on what was to be its next big thing – the ‘new midsize airplane’ or NMA.
Before the MAX issue, Boeing had been confident of revealing the NMA, affectionately dubbed the ‘797’, to the world last year. We thought perhaps it would happen in Paris. However, Boeing’s then-president Muilenberg was more concerned with a heartfelt apology by then than any big reveals of new jets.
With engineers pulled off to work on fixes for the MAX, progress on the NMA stalled. When Muilenberg left the company at the end of the year, incoming president Calhoun promptly shelved all plans for the 797, saying any new concept needed to be redesigned from scratch as part of a complete reassessment of Boeing’s product line.
Since then, all has been quiet on the NMA front. But, with airlines retiring their old midsize airplanes hand over fist, would Boeing be wise to get back in the saddle sooner rather than later?
The gap in the market
The NMA was destined to fill a gaping hole in the current Boeing product lineup. While the Dreamliner and 777/777X fill the small and large long-haul widebody market, and the 737 the short-haul narrowbody one, there’s nothing really suitable for mid-haul, mid-capacity operations.
That niche used to be filled by the 757 and 767 combined, each with a slightly different mission profile but together a worthy pair of products to satisfy that unique need. However, Boeing ended production of the 757 more than 15 years ago and has now stopped building passenger variants of the 767.
Now, the company is on the backfoot, as Airbus’ one-two punch of the A330-800 and the A321XLR are squeezing that market gap to almost nothing. Unless the US planemaker comes up with something to fill it soon, even its most loyal customers will be forced to pick European, as they phase out the last of the 757/767 fleet.
A blessing in disguise?
The impact of COVID may well be the deciding factor in whether Boeing comes back to the 797/NMA project or not. While the downturn in aviation means airlines may not be ordering new planes for a while, that could actually be just the breathing room the company needs to revisit this project anew.
Previously, airlines wanted their delivery slots for 757/767 replacements secured even before they set dates to retire the type. They needed to know more capacity was on its way. With that urgency removed, Boeing has perhaps a little more time to bring a suitable replacement to market.
The other factor to consider is the type of aircraft airlines will be looking for when they do order again. Boeing’s giant 777X may still have a place in the future fleet matrix, but with passenger demand predicted to be low for some years, may be restricted to hub-to-hub operations only.
In the ‘new normal,’ airlines may well be looking for more point to point, more unique routes, and more flexibility in their future workhorse. That could well be the perfect niche for the 797/NMA to fill. If Boeing does revive the NMA project soon, it could be the best thing it’s ever done.
What do you think? Should Boeing go back to the NMA project? Let us know in the comments.