Boeing’s work on what it calls the NMA, or New Midsize Airplane, has advanced over the past six months to the point where Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president and general manager of airplane development Mike Delaney characterized the prospects of a launch as a matter of “when” rather than “if.” Speaking with reporters just ahead of the Farnborough International Airshow, Delaney reported that Boeing has now talked to 36 potential customers about a market space that would require specifications that roughly fall within those of the 757 and the 767. Analysts now suggest a need for a target capacity of between 200 and 270 passengers and a range of between 4,800 and 5,000 nautical miles.
“You have three groups of customers,” said Delaney. “You’ve got guys that want to fly more people, you have guys that want to fly more range, and then you’ve got the group that wants to fly more people and more range.”
In fact, Boeing (Chalet B6) sees the NMA filling a completely new market niche, prompting airlines to consider completely new route structures. Of course, airlines wanting to perform transatlantic missions would account for a large piece of the overall market opportunity for Boeing, said Delaney, but so would those eyeing intra-Asia and Europe-Middle East services.
“Most people start their route planning on an east-west kind of vector,” said Delaney. “Now all of a sudden people start thinking about a north-south kind of scenario. So people are really starting to think about this as a unique market niche.”
From a technical standpoint, Boeing believes it has developed all the elements it needs in areas such as the wing on the 777X and composite body of the 787. However, much work remains with engine companies to determine the proper thrust range and sizing, as does analysis of how to Boeing itself can produce the airplane at a cost that allows for the proper price to customers by the middle of the next decade. “It is not easy; it is not impossible; we are not there yet; but in the last six months [we] have closed the gap pretty good,” said Delaney. “I’m much more optimistic that we can figure our piece out by the middle of the next decade and I’m pretty sure one or more of engine partners will figure it out because they won’t want to be left behind.”
Delaney explained that although the 787 cost more to develop than expected, the journey from initial design to the final product taught Boeing how to build a composite wing, for example, at what he called metallic economics. The company’s recently opened composite wing center (CWC) at Everett (Seattle) for the 777X provides a platform from which the NMA can “jump off.”
“There are a whole bunch of lessons or objectives in this [CWC] building beyond just supporting our 777X program,” said Delaney. “It’s just like anything; we expect ourselves to get better and more efficient as we understand the process engineering, as we understand the materials, as we understand the way to make it, as we understand the effects of defects, all the things you go through into the manufacturing.”
For the fuselage, Boeing has yet to decide whether the NMA would use composites or metal, but in either case it thinks it understands how it wants to proceed, added Delaney. The cross section remains a significant consideration, as does the choice between a single-aisle or twin-aisle configuration. “There’s two big decisions: it’s your payload-range curve and it’s your cross-section,” said Delaney. “The payload-range curve we’ll get done through our customers…They’re sort of telling us that piece of the equation. The second piece of the equation is what we choose to do to compete in that market, how to put those 200 to 270 people into a fuselage…We’re studying multiple things.”
For the propulsion system, one of the three major engine companies will need to develop a 40,000-pound-thrust engine that can offer what he called the next step beyond their current technologies. BCA vice president of product development Mike Sinnett continues to work with the engine companies on determining the proper fan diameter, pressure ratios and engine cycle that the NMA will need.
Once you determine the proper fan diameter, explained Delaney, engineers need then to understand how to wrap it with the right nacelle because one could easily lose gains associated with a larger fan diameter in drag associated with a poorly designed nacelle. “I would say [that applies] to even today’s generation of nacelle,” he suggested. “So we’re investing in those technologies.”
Delaney estimated the total market for the NMA, including some overlap with existing narrowbodies and widebodies, ranges between 4,000 and 5,000 airplanes. He also said any decision to proceed with the NMA doesn’t preclude a version of the 737 larger than the Max 9, studies into which continue.