Boeing Will Show New Narrowbody before Re-engining 737, Says Airbus

 - April 15, 2011, 10:00 AM
New plans call for the Pratt & Whitney-powered A320neo to reach the market six months earlier than the original April 2016 target. Photo credit: Airbus

Airbus has moved forward by six months its target to introduce the A320neo, in effect pre-empting any word from Boeing about its choice of whether to re-engine the 737 or introduce a new “clean-sheet” design. John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer for customers, said he thinks the U.S. company will “launch” a narrowbody replacement, then defer its plans once it recognizes the timing doesn’t work and ultimately opt to re-engine the 737.  

Last year, Leahy predicted that Boeing, if Airbus launched the A320neo, would reveal a new design for introduction in 2020. Airbus’s announcement last week of a six-month advance in entry-into-service target for the A320neo (powered by the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G) to October 2015, would serve to increase the A320neo’s timing advantage over a new Boeing. Simultaneously, Airbus said it expects significant engine improvements–using open-rotor technologies–will not become available for next-generation narrowbodies before 2030, thus questioning potential performance claims for a new aircraft entering service 10 years earlier.

Timing for an A320 replacement, featuring a package of advanced materials, systems and engine developments, has moved progressively further into the future. From the early/mid-years of this decade, which engine OEMs said would prove “too early,” the target date moved through the 2020s to this month’s suggested 2030 to 2035 for entry into service, the timing for which Airbus cited support from NASA research.

Leahy might not assign too much credibility to a note this week from Buckingham Research. Despite a reputation for accurately reading Boeing intentions, the investment bank changed its mind about Boeing announcing a new 737/757-size model at the Paris Air Show, saying, “We do not believe Boeing will announce a new airplane at the show.”

Buckingham speculated that Boeing “may not gain an ‘approval-to-offer’ for a new airplane until late 2012/early 2013.” In other words, the Boeing board might not clear salesmen to negotiate formally with potential customers for almost another two years. But lack of approval does not preclude Boeing from unveiling a new concept aimed at distracting possible A320neo buyers before reverting to less-ambitious plans.

And Leahy has grown accustomed to such changes of course by Boeing. Last week he recounted two such diversionary exercises: the 7J7 (proposed in September 1985 for entry into service in “2,500 days,” but finally delayed “indefinitely” in December 1987 in favor of the 1993 737NG) and the March 2001 unveiling of the Sonic Cruiser (which survived for 21 months before being replaced by the more-conventional 7E7/787).

In fact, Leahy has expressed little doubt about his belief in the demand for re-engined narrowbodies from both manufacturers. “The market wants the re-engined A320–and probably a re-engined 737, as well,” he surmised.