Boeing And Embraer Serious About New Conventional Aircraft Soon
The parameters were set for what could have been a lost decade. Airlines went through a superprofitable supercycle until 2019, enjoying growth rates way above the historical average translating into previously unheard-of aircraft orders, backlogs and production rates, with the latest versions of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 each securing several thousands of orders. Then the COVID-19 pandemic turned what had felt too good to be true into the industry’s worst nightmare and its new reality.
The dominating factors—large, young, in-service fleets combined with big backlogs and airlines and aircraft manufacturers in financial distress—are not good conditions for initiating multibillion-dollar investments in new development programs. Add in the accelerating disruption by emerging technologies such as hybrid-electric and hydrogen propulsion, and successful business plans become difficult to achieve. Despite all that, indications are that two of the remaining three Western OEMs—Boeing and Embraer—are seriously considering launching new, conventionally powered aircraft based on current technology.
- OEMs proceed with conventional aircraft designs
- Boeing pursues -5X project with key suppliers
- Embraer targets 2022 launch of new turboprop
The aircraft, if launched in the next 1-2 years, would be available well before 2030. That they are being pursued at all shows a fundamental difference in thinking among the major aircraft-makers. Boeing and Embraer contend it will take longer for disruptive technology to play a major role in aviation’s efforts to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and massively reduce emissions early in the effort. Instead, they will focus on whatever technologies are available and combine them with extensive use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Boeing targets full compatibility with its aircraft by 2030.
Airbus, by contrast, has no plans to launch a new, conventionally powered aircraft for the time being. Its A320neo family is dominating the narrowbody market. The A220 is a superior offering in the small narrowbody market in competition with the Boeing 737-7, and it provides strategic options should the OEM decide to stretch the airframe further. The A321XLR had begun to eat into the traditional widebody market before the pandemic.
Airbus can wait to see what Boeing decides and react accordingly. Boeing’s -5X project is directed at much of the same market in which the A330neo has underperformed. Reinvigorated competition from Boeing in that space may force Airbus to reconsider its options, but any action will depend on the -5X’s specifications and market success.
Almost a month after Aviation Week broke the news that Boeing was taking the first steps toward launching its first all-new airliner since the 787 (AW&ST Feb. 8-21, p. 12), the company has quietly begun recruiting a team of cockpit design engineers—providing further clues that work is beginning on development of the aircraft’s flight deck.
Although Boeing continues to update and support the flight decks of the current product line, the rash of new job postings in this specialization is thought to signal a significant increase in work on a new product development. The flight deck is traditionally an early area of design focus for new aircraft, and this, coupled with the unusual timing of the recruitment drive during a downturn for the company, strongly suggests the move is associated with the new midsize project.
Thought to be dubbed the -5X, the aircraft project draws on the new midmarket airplane (NMA) initiative that Boeing shelved in early 2020 in favor of a direct competitor to the A321XLR. Although a subset of the NMA, the aircraft is expected to be a “really differentiated product,” says Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun.
While the chief focus of development is an advanced production system, the aircraft itself is expected to feature an innovative twin-aisle cross-section and all-composite construction. The program also offers Boeing an opportunity to introduce evolutionary flight deck advances that likely will build on 787/777X display formats, control interfaces, flight management systems, panel layouts and other elements.
The original NMA-family concept focused initially on a 757 replacement but later expanded to include a successor to the 767. By early 2019, the NMA family consisted of two main versions: the 225-seat NMA-6X and 275-seat NMA-7X, with the larger expected to be developed first. However, the plan was derailed by the market’s lukewarm response to the proposals and by the 737 MAX accidents and the model’s subsequent worldwide grounding. In the interim, Boeing revised its plan to study a shorter-term, current-technology project aimed at entry into service as early as 2027, and a longer-term effort with more advanced technology for the 2030 time frame.
The drive toward the -5X reflects Boeing’s subsequent decision in favor of the nearer-term choice and, according to sources, potentially includes the NMA-like option of adding a later, smaller 225-seat stablemate. Aside from flight deck, systems and propulsion, the remaining long-lead determinants for the program are dominated by Boeing’s continuing attempts to drive down production costs for the aircraft.
The critical importance of these efforts was underlined in January by Calhoun. “Differentiation at the airframe level itself is really, really important in the next run,” he said, “which means that these technologies we are working with and trying to demonstrate to ourselves at scale with determinant assembly—those are the things that will differentiate [the next product]. And believe it or not, that becomes the most important criteria for us with respect to announcing that next airplane.”
But is Boeing preparing the right aircraft? “That aircraft cannot compete with the XLR, except at extreme ranges,” Agency Partners aerospace analyst Sash Tusa says. “And it does not solve Boeing’s biggest problem.” In his view, the main problem is that the MAX is turning into a “single-point design,” with only the 737-8 accepted by the market as a competitive product, while the -7, -9 and -10 are going to be commercial failures. Airbus will “beat them at volumes, efficiency and pricing,” Tusa says. Because of the higher volumes, the Boeing rival can expect to see 10% lower pricing from suppliers. “That is the brutal truth of the family concept,” he says.
Tusa’s argument is that Boeing is slowly nearing the fate of McDonnell Douglas, which did not have a competitive single-aisle family in the 1990s. He agrees that the -5X could turn into a serious problem for the A330neo, but the Airbus widebody is only a minor issue for Boeing. “Sinking $15 billion into an A330neo-killer is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” he says. “[Boeing is] failing to see their product weakness.”
Nonetheless, Boeing continues to narrow down key design decisions for the -5X. One big unknown is whether Boeing will stay with conventional pilot controls for its new airliner design or consider sidestick inceptors. The company resisted the move for the 787, despite the more recent availability of active sidesticks for commercial aircraft, preferring to retain the familiar control yoke for fleet training commonality and interoperability.
Unlike the passive sidesticks used in Airbus flight decks, active side-sticks provide force, or tactile, feedback to the crew and are in service on business jets and transports. But according to industry sources, the program goals stress design simplicity and low cost—both of which may mitigate against consideration of such a move.
The flight deck team now being beefed up with new recruits in Everett, Washington, will be bolstered with engineers specializing primarily in human factors and flight deck crew operations. The additional challenge facing the team will be which design factors to consider for a future product destined to fit between the 737 MAX and the 787. Key lessons are likely to be borrowed from the original common cockpit design concepts of the 757 and 767, which were developed in parallel to enable common type ratings for pilots flying both models.
That approach would be particularly apt, as the -5X appears to be targeting the 250-275-seat category in a two-class, twin-aisle configuration and would effectively be a replacement for the 757-200/-300. With a likely range of up to or beyond 5,000 nm, the program also will build on much of the early propulsion and systems work already performed for the NMA.
Given the huge success of the A321neo and its longer-range variants, Airbus can enjoy its “second-mover advantage,” as Tusa calls it. It can simply wait and see what Boeing does and otherwise focus on its longer-term hydrogen projects, for which it has substantial funding support from the French and German governments. And should Airbus feel the need to react, it can do so faster. Why? “Because it will be a derivative,” Tusa says.
There are two main paths Airbus could pursue prior to 2030. It could stretch the A220 to finally build the A220-500 that it and previous owner Bombardier have been exploring for years. The aircraft would compete with the 737-7 and -8 and make the A319neo obsolete, a problem Airbus can ignore, since the smallest family member is not selling well anyway. Design work would have to go into the fuselage and more powerful engines and an adapted wing, representing a relatively limited investment. That covers the lower end of the narrowbody market.
Probably the more important options lie with further upgrades to the A321neo, what colloquially has been called the A322. That aircraft could be slightly larger than the A321neo and would provide the opportunity to introduce a composite wing to narrowbodies. But, Tusa points out, there are technological challenges involved: The traditional autoclave curing process would not be an option because of the high production rates. Instead, Airbus would have to introduce room-temperature composites.
Overall, the A322 could become a “very substantial upgrade” to the A321neo, with the technological work done potentially being fed back into the broader A320neo family. Tusa can see the A322 alone as a “1,500-aircraft production run” until some form of a new-technology aircraft can take a share of the market in the late 2030s, while hydrogen power, if the concept is pursued, will also “cannibalize some of the narrowbody demand.” Above all, combined with likely new environmental regulations imposed on aviation by European governments, “it will kill the MAX in Europe,” he notes.
From an all-new turbofan perspective, the Boeing program represents the only known active project on the horizon. GE Aviation and CFM joint venture partner Safran are expected to bid to power the new airliner and continue where they left off with the baseline conventional, direct-drive turbofan option. This marries a variant of the GEnx core with a fan derived from the resin-transfer-molding design employed on the Leap 1. The target thrust level is expected to be close to 50,000 lb., and—like the original high-bypass studies for the NMA concept—is likely to require a large fan of around 100 in. in diameter.
Pratt & Whitney, which is working on a technology insertion effort for the geared turbofan (GTF) aimed at entry into service around the mid-2020s, is studying a second-generation ultra-high-bypass GTF variant for the Boeing project and other potential reengining initiatives that may emerge in the 2030s. No details of the scaled-up engine design have emerged, although Pratt has acknowledged even near-term GTF derivatives could incorporate embedded starter/generators for future more-electric aircraft needs.
Having passed on Boeing’s initial NMA project over concerns about the development schedule being too tight, Rolls-Royce is also back in the hunt for the revised airliner concept with the RB30XX, an initial production version of the UltraFan very-high-bypass engine. Although Rolls says development of follow-on versions of the new geared engine are on hold pending agreement on firm applications, the UK manufacturer is pressing on with tests of a series of demonstrators, the first of which is expected to begin in early 2022. Like Pratt & Whitney, Rolls is also studying follow-on more electric versions of the UltraFan for the 2030s and beyond.
Meanwhile, Embraer aims to position itself as the manufacturer producing the most environmentally sustainable aircraft in its segment. Subsequent to the E2 family it introduced in 2019, Embraer is closing in on a decision to build a new turboprop. According to Rodrigo Silva e Souza, Embraer Commercial Aviation vice president of marketing, management hopes to formally launch the program in early 2022, with entry into service planned for 2027.
Over the past several months, Embraer teams have been working on several key issues: getting airlines involved in the design specifications of the aircraft, incorporating their feedback and talking to suppliers and potential investors. Embraer Commercial CEO Arjan Meijer has made clear that the company cannot afford to build the aircraft alone but needs partners to invest in it.
The aircraft Embraer is considering would be a family of two new large turboprops, one seating around 90 passengers and the smaller one around 70. The aircraft would have a range of just below 1,000 nm, though the manufacturer believes its typical mission would be more like 250 nm. By comparison, Embraer’s smallest jet, the E175, flies average missions of 500 nm. The cabin is planned to be essentially identical to that of the E2 jets, harvesting as much of the previous investment as possible and also aiming at improving passenger comfort substantially over current aircraft.
According to Silva e Souza, airlines have made clear that they also want higher reliability than that of earlier turboprops, as well reductions in airframe and engine-maintenance costs.
Alternative studies are still ongoing into engine positioning, drag and aerodynamic efficiency, but the cabin and fuselage details have been decided.
Notably, the aircraft initially will be a purely conventional design targeting a 15-20% improvement in fuel burn per seat compared to existing aircraft, but Embraer wants to design it in such a way that a hybrid element can be added in the future. New technologies could be incorporated incrementally into the new turboprop, and it could be a cost-efficient platform for a next-generation regional aircraft, taking fuller advantage of new propulsion opportunities in the 2030s. But Silva e Souza believes “it is going to take a long time for technically and economically viable options” to materialize.
Embraer is talking to General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce about possible engines for the initial two aircraft.
Embraer’s project marks a rare potential bright spot for GE and Pratt & Whitney, both of which are seeking applications for new-generation large engines developed to the prelaunch level in the 2010s in anticipation of new growth in the regional turboprop market. This was not forthcoming, as both ATR and Bombardier shelved all plans for next-gen, higher-speed successors to the ATR 42/72 and Q-series, respectively, amid uncertain conditions and competition from smaller twinjets.
However, the Embraer project appears to be in approximately the same power class as the long-abandoned Euro-pean and Canadian concepts, and for the moment at least it is targeting conventional turboprop engines over more exotic advanced-propulsion options such as hybrid-electric and hydrogen fuel cells. These new forms of power are, for the near term at least, more suited to small commuter and regional aircraft with 9-20 seats, though in their hybrid forms they are being applied to larger transport classes.
The regional market has, for example, been targeted by startup Universal Hydrogen, which is partnered with fuel-cell producer Plug Power and electric motor developer MagniX to develop a 2-megawatt, zero-emission power train for retrofit into 40-60-seat regional turboprops, beginning with the de Havilland Canada Dash 8-Q300. The startup plans to begin experimental flights in 2023, aiming for supplemental type certification and entry into service by 2025. In addition to the Dash 8, Universal Hydrogen plans to offer the conversion for the ATR 42 and 72 regional turboprops.
At the other end of the scale, Rolls-Royce and general aviation manufacturer Tecnam announced in March they are teaming with Norwegian carrier Wideroe to develop the P-Volt, an all-electric commuter aircraft based on the 11-seat Tecnam P2012 Traveller aircraft.
For Embraer’s project, GE Aviation is expected to propose a new-technology commercial turboprop dubbed the CPX based on the core of the 7,332-shp-rated military T408 turbo-shaft developed for the Sikorsky CH-53K helicopter. The concept is likely to target a minimum 15% improvement in fuel consumption compared to other large turboprops and would include an integrated propulsion system of the propeller, engine and nacelles.
Since last producing its CT7 range of commercial turboprops for the Saab 340, CASA/IPTN CN-235 and Let 610G, GE has completely revamped its small turboprop lineup and will likely incorporate technology developed during the design and testing of the Catalyst—a new 850-1,600-shp centerline engine for single and twin turbo-props. Produced almost entirely in Europe, the Catalyst ATP is designed to compete with the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 and is due to begin test flights later in 2021.
Pratt & Whitney is expected to propose either an upgraded version of the PW150 or the first variant of its Next-Generation Regional Turbo-prop (NGRT), a long-running new engine demonstrator developed in the 2010s. Aimed at the broad 3,500-6,000-shp power range between the existing PW127 and PW150, the NGRT was developed for future 90-110-seat turbo-props but is also suitable for reengining existing airframes. It incorporates a new centerline design with a 24:1-pressure-ratio compressor, significantly higher than the current PW100/PW150 commercial turboprops.
Pratt has said the NGRT will offer 20% lower fuel burn than state-of-the-art engines and, together with an advanced propeller and integrated nacelle, would have 35% better fuel efficiency than a turbofan-powered airliner on a typical 500-nm flight.
However, if Embraer pushes for more speed, Pratt is expected to offer an improved version of the PW150, which would build on elements of the NGRT as well as the PW150C version developed for China’s MA700 regional turboprop. The new engine incorporates a new gearbox and control system and an additional third-stage power turbine that provides a 1% fuel improvement and lower operating temperatures compared to earlier PW150s.
Commonality with the E2 will be a key element for Embraer to drive down costs for its turboprop project. The effort is most visible in the cabin and fuselage, but Embraer also plans to span systems, parts and pilot training, among other things. In terms of size, the 90-seater will be very similar to the 175-E2, while the 70-seater will be more aligned with the 170, for which there is no E2 model. Silva e Souza expects that the jets and turboprops will be used on completely different mission profiles, so they would hardly compete. He sees the Asia-Pacific region and Europe as the two most important markets for a new turboprop, while the U.S. is “not part of the core business case,” given passenger discomfort with existing turboprops.
Embraer is also making progress on the industrial and investment sides, according to Silva e Souza. The project is generating “strong interest in the market from organizations that do not have a big presence in commercial aviation so far,” he says. Getting agreements in place that would secure financing for the development and flight-testing work is currently “the primary focus,” he notes.
At the same time, Embraer is already sending out requests for proposals and requests for information to important suppliers.