Boeing rethinking what its next all-new airplane will be

Jan 29, 2020

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Boeing has hit the refresh button on development of its next new airplane, as its new CEO re-evaluates its aircraft development pipeline amid a focus on the safe return of the 737 MAX.

“We’re in the airplane development business and we’re going to stay in the airplane development business,” David Calhoun, CEO of the Chicago-based planemaker, said during a quarterly earnings call on Wednesday. “We’re going to keep looking at what the next one needs to be.”

Calhoun’s comments came as he and other Boeing executives made it clear that development of the proposed “New Mid-market Airplane” (NMA) has been put on hold — if not shelved completely — in favor of a refresh to the company’s commercial aircraft development pipeline.

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The NMA concept, which Boeing has worked on since at least 2015, was for a clean-sheet twin-aisle jet with seats for 200 to 270 passengers and a range of about 5,750 miles. The aircraft has been imagined as a replacement for longer-haul Boeing 757s, as well as for larger Boeing 767s in markets where airlines do not need the added capabilities of the Boeing 787.

Calhoun declined to commit to what Boeing’s next clean-sheet jet will look like, except to say that it will build on the development work from the NMA project.

“I don’t know,” he said when asked by The Air Current editor Jon Ostrower whether its next new plane will be in the same — or another — size category as the proposed mid-market plane.

One thing is clear: Boeing will not develop its next jet based on pressure from Airbus’ recently launched A321XLR, a longer-range version of the A321neo.

Related: 737 MAX woes send Boeing to first annual loss since 1997

“Doing them fast and doing them in response [to the A321]… is not what you do when you’re developing the next airplane,” Calhoun told reporters. “It’s critical we get it right.”

In addition to the A321XLR, Airbus also has staked out a spot against a potentially larger Boeing NMA model with its A330neo family. Delta has ordered 35 A330-900s, with four in-service at the end of December, to replace some of its 767s.

American Airlines and United Airlines, two potential NMA customers, have already jumped for the A321XLR. Both have ordered 50 of the new jet with eyes on using them to replace their longer-range 757s.

Related: United orders Airbus A321XLR to replace Boeing 757s to Europe

However, United commercial chief Andrew Nocella said in December that the airline would continue to consider the NMA to replace its 767s when Boeing “further refines the mission capabilities and details” of the proposed plane.

Delta  has yet to commit to a full replacement of their 757 and 767 fleets and, as recently as December, its CEO Ed Bastian said they remained “interested” in the NMA.

Boeing will speak with all of its customers on their future aircraft needs before it decides on what its next clean-sheet plane will look like, said Calhoun. Once that decision is made, the planemaker aims to move forward on the new jet “very quickly.”

Related: Delta still wants Boeing to build a new mid-sized widebody

For the time being, Boeing’s focus is on returning the MAX to the skies. Earlier in January, the planemaker surprised airlines and analysts by moving back its return-to-service expectations to mid-2020. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines do not expect to have the plane flying again until after the summer peak as a result of the guidance update.

While the MAX is, and should be, Boeing’s priority — the widely expected decision on the NMA does not appear as if it was contingent on the progress re-certifying the narrow-body jet.

“If we had not had trouble with the MAX, I would have made the same decision with the NMA,” said Calhoun.

Featured image by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy.

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