What's Next for Boeing: Clues Emerge on Midrange Jet for 2020s

  • Successor to 757 must be as efficient as signature 737 model
  • A twin-aisle offering? Don't assume that, executive says

Dubai Air Show Sees Buyers Taking a Breather

As Boeing Co. weighs developing a midsize model to fill a critical gap in its jet lineup, one thing is clear: Whatever its dimensions and shape, the new plane must be about as economical to fly as the signature 737.

The company’s chief of airliner sales delivered that message Saturday on the eve of the Dubai Air Show while dropping a few other hints about Boeing’s work on a concept that has captured the industry’s attention. The plane might have one aisle -- or two. And there’s probably demand for at least 2,000 of the jets.

Planning for a midrange aircraft to fit between Boeing’s 737 Max 8 narrow-body and smallest 787 Dreamliner has gained urgency with the sales success of a single-aisle Airbus Group SE model targeting the same market niche. Boeing hasn’t had an offering in that segment since the 757 went out of production a decade ago.

“We’ve been studying what the opportunities are in the market space between the 737 Max and the 787 in terms of size and range capability, and it’s clear to us there is interest,” said John Wojick, senior vice president for global sales and marketing. “The one thing we know customers want is the most fuel-efficient plane we can build -- and if it means having two aisles is less efficient, they’d rather have single aisle.”

2022 Schedule

Boeing won’t introduce any new model before 2022 while it focuses on other development programs, Wojick said at a briefing for reporters. Now in the works are the Max -- a version of the top-selling 737 with new engines -- and an upgrade to the wide-body 777, the world’s largest twin-engine jetliner.

New aircraft take years to build, and Boeing’s increasingly public musings about how it would proceed on a midsize plane have been closely followed by airlines, lessors, analysts and consultants.

Boeing sees a market for “several thousand” airliners that can carry 220 to 280 passengers about 4,500 nautical miles (8,300 kilometers), Wojick said. When pressed about the meaning of “several,” he declined to say whether demand might top 3,000 while saying it would certainly exceed 2,000.

Single-aisle planes like the 737 are the workhorses of the global airline industry, ferrying passengers for an hour or two between cities. Twin-aisle models such as the Dreamliner are larger, costlier and are most efficient on long routes such as Los Angeles to Sydney.

Airbus’s biggest narrow-body, the A321, has sold well with former 757 operators like Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc. as they upgrade their transcontinental flights. It’s the main reason why the updated Airbus A320neo family has pulled away from its Boeing counterparts, the 737 Max models, claiming about 60 percent of orders in a two-company market, according to an Oct. 21 report by Agency Partners.

While Boeing has studied a range of responses, executives have signaled that they see reclaiming the middle of the market with an aircraft boasting narrow-body economics and a twin-aisle design. Such a plane would be Boeing’s first all-new design since the composite 787, which was bedeviled by design and supplier shortfalls before entering service in 2011.

The optimum shape for the new jetliner may be an oval-shaped fuselage similar to a design Boeing patented in 2010 with seven-abreast seating, according to Ron Epstein, an aerospace analyst with Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch unit.

Funneling passengers to their seats via two aisles would trim about 15 minutes from boarding time on a 757, speeding airport gate turn-around times for operators, Epstein wrote in a Sept. 10 report.

He estimated there was industry demand for about 2,700 aircraft seating 200 to 270 travelers and boasting a range of 3,000 to 5,000 nautical miles, or from New York to Helsinki. The plane would probably have an aluminum fuselage and composite wings, Epstein said, and would cost about $15 billion to develop.

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