Near-Term Hope For New Boeing Airliner Dims Amid 777X Freighter Focus

Boeing 777x
Credit: Boeing

Despite continuing to defer strategic decisions on successor models for the 737 and 757 market sectors, Boeing President and CEO Dave Calhoun insists the manufacturer is adequately funding both near-term product development and longer-term overall research and development (R&D).

Commenting at the company’s 2021 second quarter earnings call July 28, Calhoun says Boeing’s development spending is focused on supporting certification of the on-going 737-10 and 777X programs as well as development of the 777X freighter—the next most likely new program on the manufacturer’s agenda. In the mid-term, he adds that spending on product development will not increase in the near-term—suggesting that the launch of an all-new airliner remains unlikely anytime soon.

“My view is we are fully funded on the important R&D efforts that will support Boeing Commercial Airplanes [BCA] broadly. I want to separate that from development funding, which is the ongoing certification work associated with the 737-10 and 777X, and I hope, and in the relatively near term—a freighter version of that airplane,” says Calhoun.

“So, we are going to be very busy and have been very busy on the development front and spending a fair amount of money on it. I don’t expect that number to go up significantly at any point in time the relatively near term—not because we’re not going to take on new stuff—just because,” he adds. 

But while money continues to be spent on current and near-horizon efforts, there is no disguising the general decrease in Boeing’s overall R&D spending. In 2020 this was around $2.5 billion, down from almost $3.2 billion in 2019. The downward trend is continuing so far in 2021 with the company spending only $996 million net on R&D in the first six months of the year, of which a mere $524 million was allotted to BCA. 

While Boeing continues to hammer home the message that airframe technologies, including production costs, will be critical to any go/no-go decision on a next-generation product, Calhoun for the first time has begun to emphasize the importance of new propulsion technology. Although as recently as early June Calhoun told Aviation Week that he did not believe “propulsion alternatives are going to give us as big a step forward on efficiency,” in defining the next aircraft—he now underscores the important role engine makers will play in achieving future sustainability goals.

“That next airplane will have to meet some serious sustainability tests. I do think that sustainable aviation fuel is going to be a big part of that and our propulsion suppliers with respect to the packages that they’re now promoting,” says Calhoun—specifically referencing CFM’s newly revealed RISE open fan demonstrator program. “I think it’s going to be a fight between sustainability, propulsion packages and meeting that spec. Then for Boeing [the challenge] is to make this the most efficient airplane it can possibly be.”

Calhoun’s near-term product development comments meanwhile again underline that Boeing is ramping up efforts to launch a 777X freighter version, despite the on-going delays to entry-into-service of the 777-9 airliner—the first 777X family variant to be developed—into late 2023. The initiative is gathering pace amid the continuing recovery of the world air cargo market, the imminent end of 747-8F production and the potential emergence of the A350-950F freighter from Airbus.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.