If airlines were asked to say in three words whether Boeing should launch a new narrowbody aircraft, the answer would be: “Just do it.” That is the message of a joint Aviation Week Network and Bank of America Global Research survey of more than 900 respondents, including a large number of airlines and lessors, published just as the industry headed into the Dubai Airshow, the first such event since Singapore 2020.
- Customers see need for up to 250 seats and long-haul capabilities
- Most respondents would consider a small widebody
- Boeing should target up to 20% unit-cost reduction
“I think it is inevitable that Boeing does something,” says Bank of America Global Research analyst Ron Epstein. “But they want to repair their balance sheet before they move ahead.” Having progressed on studies for a new midmarket airplane (NMA) until early 2020, the U.S. manufacturer has throttled back new product development efforts while prioritizing production stability and recovery efforts following the historic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 20-month grounding of the 737 MAX and the stop in Boeing 787 deliveries that, some say, may still be in place in the first quarter of 2022.
Although some details leaked out of Boeing’s late-2020 study of the NMA-derived -5X concept to counter the Airbus A321XLR and potentially fill the 757-replacement niche, the company has since retrenched to focus on more immediate concerns—including resuming 787 deliveries and certifying the 777X. There are no clear indications yet about a concrete timeline, a launch date or entry into service.
However, lower-level preparations for the launch of new products quietly continue in the background while Boeing assesses market timing and opportunities. These measures range from establishing teams to develop new-technology flight decks and other systems to forming an integrated product team (IPT) to pave the way digitally for the design and production of its next commercial aircraft using capabilities and methods largely perfected on a recent set of military programs.
Customers’ ideas of where the IPT should focus become very clear in the responses to the joint survey about Boeing’s next aircraft: 73% of respondents say Boeing needs to offer a more capable, longer-range, larger-capacity narrowbody aircraft with lower unit costs. The aircraft, as defined by most of its potential customers, would be significantly larger than the current Boeing 737 MAX, and 29% of respondents would prefer a family of aircraft with 180 to 250 seats. More than half the participants also want the aircraft to fly 4,500 nm or farther—significantly longer than the range of any current narrowbody except the Airbus A321XLR.
Future operators and owners are also quite demanding—but not unrealistic—about the targeted reduction in unit costs: 60% are happy with 15% lower costs, and 85% find 20% lower costs acceptable.
It is obvious from the survey results that airlines and lessors want Boeing to build a competitor to the Airbus A321XLR rather than a one-for-one replacement of the MAX. The long-range A321neo is scheduled to be delivered first in 2023, and even though the manufacturer does not reveal precise order figures for the type, it is safe to assume that firm commitments top 500 units. Epstein calls the project “ostensibly a modern 757.”
Like the Boeing 757, the XLR will be used by many airlines on true long-haul routes across the Atlantic or from the U.S. deep into Latin America. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby tells Aviation Week that the airline’s XLRs are specifically dedicated to these markets out of Newark, New Jersey, and Washington. North Africa is also on United’s radar.
Half of A320neo-family production soon will be devoted to the A321neo, which is dominating the large-single-aisle market. It has become a hugely important source of revenue for Airbus, a piece of the pie for which Boeing has difficulty competing, given the shorter ranges of the 737-9 and -10.
In contrast, Epstein and most other analysts agree that the 737-8 will sell well against the A320neo—freeing Boeing to make its next airliner larger.
It is not a surprise that environmental sustainability is a key factor to survey respondents, too: 71% say that element is extremely or very important. And they make clear that they would like Boeing to act fast, in principle. Boeing should deliver a new aircraft in 2026, 29% say, in 2027, according to 22% and in 2028, say 19%, the same share as those asking for first delivery in 2030. Regardless of the eventual timing, they agree that Boeing has little or no time to waste.
There is one caveat: new propulsion technologies. Almost two-thirds of respondents say they would be prepared to wait for an aircraft “significantly longer” if that means new concepts such as an open-rotor, hydrogen- or hybrid-power engine could be introduced. Almost as many say there would be customer acceptance issues with open rotors. These are at the heart of CFM International’s Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines (RISE) research and development program that could power a next-generation aircraft.
In RISE, CFM plans to develop an open-fan demonstrator. The program aims to overcome the noise and performance challenges encountered in earlier open-rotor concepts using 21st-century technology and design methods.
Announced this year, the program targets a 20% reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions compared with current engines and is aimed at a successor to the current Leap 1 turbofan in the 20,000-35,000-lb.-thrust class (AW&ST June 28-July 11, p. 14). The demonstrator program expects to culminate in 2024-25 with flight tests of a single-stage, gear-driven fan paired with active stators in a tractor configuration.
However, Mike Sinnett, vice president and general manager of product development for Boeing, insists that RISE has not specifically affected the company’s thinking on the timing and direction of its next new product. “It is a technology demonstrator, where CFM is taking a number of different technologies and testing them together in one package,” Sinnett says. “They’ve said it’s not a program, and it’s not necessarily meant to even be an integrated solution—but it’s a chance to test a number of things at once.
“From my perspective—and from our team’s perspective as airplane designers—we see those as the potential for interesting new tools in the toolkit,” he adds. “Some of those [technologies] are interesting. The timing might work with some, and sometimes not. And then we’ll be interested to see what kind of integrated solution pops out the back end of that and what the timing for that might be.”
Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents would support Boeing using a single engine supplier for its next airliner. That is familiar, since Boeing has not offered an engine option for the 737 MAX or earlier versions.
When Boeing studied the NMA and the subsequent -5X, the manufacturer left open whether it would ultimately go for a narrowbody or a small widebody. Almost three-quarters of survey participants say they would consider a small widebody despite the higher drag caused by a wider fuselage cross section. There are two reasons for this: Boarding and deboarding can be faster if passengers can use two aisles. Turn-around times are an issue with long narrowbodies, including the 757-300, which is now primarily used in a charter role and where passengers can use both the front and rear doors. The other reason is the increasing importance of cargo revenue, for which at least a decent amount of volume is necessary. If the A321XLR concept has one weakness, it is that there is essentially no space left for cargo with a full passenger load on a long-haul flight.
On the Boeing side, the concept studies are ongoing. Boeing is polling industry for potential input to support its proposal to NASA for a new single-aisle sustainable flight demonstrator (SFD). A competitive program, which will likely be the largest purpose-built experimental aircraft in the seven-decade X-plane series, the new aircraft will form the core of NASA’s Sustainable Flight National Partnership plan with other agencies, industry and academia.
Aimed at testing and maturing key airframe-focused technologies for introduction on future single-aisle airliners by 2035, the X-plane is expected to begin flight tests in late 2026. The project could pave the way for a low-emission, high-efficiency successor to at least part of the current 737 family in the 2030s, if Boeing is successful. Boeing’s bid will be based on the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing, a novel, high-aspect-ratio wing design that has been studied for more than a decade.
Following a planned first flight in late 2026, NASA says the SFD research campaign will last for six months and be completed in 2027. Design, ground testing and flight research data from the SFD will be used to measure the winning contractor’s “vision system” performance relative to a set of midterm performance objectives set out by NASA for future subsonic transport aircraft in the 2025-35 time frame.