Boeing will need to decide on whether or not to proceed with a new middle-of-the-market airplane by the end of next year to safely meet a stated service entry target of 2025, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Kevin McAllister told reporters during a pre-Farnborough briefing in Seattle ahead of the show. The company every week reviews its projections for the level of investment it would need to bring the airplane to market, he added, and consultations with more than 55 potential customers have helped it more precisely determine the airplane’s physical configuration.
During reporters’ traditional visit to Boeing’s Seattle-area facilities to review program progress in preparation for the show, the company offered no new detail on the engineering progress of the NMA, but McAllister emphasized the need to vet the business plan more rigorously than it did with so-called clean sheet programs in the past.
“We’re using time more intelligently on this NMA airplane than maybe we would have in the past, to really do a rigorous vetting of the airplane, the market, and the production system,” he said. “And I think when you’re done with that you get the balance of the business plan—how does it look in terms of value for your customers, what’s the demand, what’s the cost, and what’s the investment required to do it. If we go forward—we’ve made no decision at this point—then we think it addresses a real need and opportunity.”
In fact, Boeing projects a potential market for 4,000 to 5,000 airplanes in the 220- to 270-seat capacity range the NMA would occupy, largely through opening new markets that now would prove unprofitable with a larger airplane or operationally infeasible with a smaller one. McAllister pointed to the 190 new markets airlines opened with the 787 as an example of the phenomenon.
“I think you see a couple dynamics around the world,” said McAllister. “One is, you’ve got markets that are frequency saturated where you want a bigger gauge airplane to be able to connect those two city pairs. And so, because the NMA sits on a higher seat count, it can go into some of these markets with more seats more economically. So that’s the high-density market that we were talking about.”
Still, said McAllister, the business case must extend beyond an assessment of the market and customer needs to considerations of the production system and recurrent and nonrecurrent costs associated with the endeavor. "I’ll tell you, the work that the teams are doing—they call it the ‘get it right’ strategy,” he stressed. “As long as we project an airplane [service entry] in 2025, I think our customers want the same thing we do, and that is, get the airplane right, get the production system right, get the economics right.”
Any evaluation of the production system would, of course, include considerations of where to perform final assembly, and McAllister left open all possibilities. “We’ve made no decision on where we put the airplane together,” he said. “We’re spending a lot of time looking at the architecture of the airplane and we’ll look at the architecture of the supply chain and the factory. But nothing yet on any decisions beyond that.”
By the middle of last year, just ahead of the last Paris Air Show, Boeing appeared to have reached some fairly basic conclusions about the need for a twin-aisle design, as most of the airlines with which Boeing has consulted on its concept for an NMA had expressed a desire for better cabin comfort and lower turn times at airports. During a pre-Paris show briefing, BCA v-p and general manager of airplane development Mike Delaney explained that designers cannot plausibly stretch an airplane designed to carry as many as 270 seats in a dual-class configuration beyond the length of a 757. “If you stretch a single-aisle NMA, it’s about 18 to 25 feet longer than a 757,” he estimated. “I’m not exactly sure that’s optically an airplane you want to be on. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in row 65E waiting to get off.”
However, some industry leaders expressed concern about the readiness of engine companies to arrive at an optimal propulsion solution for a global customer base. “The key part of this is the engine technology,” said AerCap Holdings CEO Angus Kelly during the 2017 ISTAT conference in San Diego. “If you’re going to be searching for that window between the A321 market and the 787 market...you need a bigger engine; you need a more efficient engine.”
As always, cost will prove a key consideration, and Kelly argued that to keep costs down one might want a lower-thrust engine that might not necessarily offer the required performance.
“If you have a 40,000-pound-thrust engine, that might be good for some of your customer base, but is it good for all of them?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “And if its 45,000 pounds of thrust, it’s going to be a more expensive airplane, and that’s the challenge they have to get right.”