Airlines across Asia-Pacific are giving Boeing’s proposed new mid-market airplane (NMA) high marks on the basis of the concept’s unusual combination of a relatively high passenger capacity and wide range capability.

“This airplane has attracted just about every airline we have talked to because, No. 1, it is going to be in a size that they like,” says Dinesh Keskar, Boeing senior vice president of Asia Pacific and India sales. After several iterations Boeing has provisionally defined two main NMA versions: a 225-seat model with a 5,000-nm. range, and a larger 275-seater with a range of roughly 4,500 nm.

“It’s going to have a range which is much better than we have today with the MAX family – and one of the biggest markets in this part of the world is going to be China. Everybody is trying to access China from various points,” says Keskar. Although some regional operators, such as Lion Air, have begun using the 737-8 version of the MAX on longer-range routes such as Indonesia-Saudi Arabia, Keskar says this illustrates the potential of the NMA.

“If you see the application of the MAX 8, then you can see how an airplane like NMA will be used on routes like this. But the biggest thing is that it will have even better seat-mile costs, and it will come in the middle of the next decade,” says Keskar. “It is going to have more reliability [and] better economics, and everybody from down under in Australia to India and Southeast Asia is interested in both the size and range of this airplane,” he adds.

Keskar will not be drawn on whether Boeing hopes to launch the NMA this year, possibly around the Farnborough Airshow in July, or even if the company board may give its authority to offer the new model, the usual prelude to a formal launch, later this year. Sources within the company indicate such a move remains far off, as Boeing’s product development team has yet to finalize even a preliminary business case proposal for submission to the board. 

One potential operator, Qantas, says the NMA would be a very attractive aircraft for Australian domestic routes, says the airline’s CEO, Alan Joyce. Speaking at the Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit (SAALS), Joyce said he expects average aircraft size to increase, as many of the country’s key airports are becoming slot constrained, and routes such as Sydney-Melbourne are already served with extremely high frequency.

Qantas would want the NMA to enable it to retain its current 35-min. turnarounds, and Joyce expects the aircraft to meet that target if it is, as expected, a twin-aisle that allows for speedy boarding and deplaning of passengers. Qantas is more interested in operational efficiency than in range, but would look at potentially using it on the Sydney-Singapore route, which exceeds eight hours of flight time. Sydney-Bali is also a potential high-density leisure market that could take the aircraft.

Qantas has 54 Airbus A320neos and 45 A321neos on firm order, none of which have been delivered. Joyce is concerned that turnaround times would be too long if Airbus stretched the A321neo further to offer a bigger competitor to the NMA. The A321neo currently holds up to 240 passengers, although Airbus is working on increasing the limit to at least 244. However, the business case for a larger A321neo may still make sense for Qantas if longer ground times are offset by lower acquisition costs, Joyce remarked.

Chaker Chahrour, general manager of global sales and marketing for GE Aviation, said he expects Boeing to launch NMA this year. “If this is an airplane that wants to enter revenue service in the 2025 time frame, then we expect there’s going to be a decision made sometime this year,” he said. GE Aviation will not go for a geared architecture when it comes to developing an engine for NMA, but will stick to its direct-drive design. He expects the CFM International joint venture with Safran to build the engine, the initial version of which is expected to be just below the 50,000-pounds-thrust limit that applies to the CFM joint venture contract.