Paris Air Show

Boeing Makes The Case For Its New Midsize Airplane

 - June 8, 2017, 9:34 AM
Boeing Commercial Airplanes head of airplane development Mike Delaney

Boeing’s proposed two-member new midsize airplane (NMA) family will do for the 220- to 270-seat market what the 787 Dreamliner line did for the segment it occupies—namely, open city pairs that would have proven unprofitable with a larger airplane or operationally infeasible with a smaller one, according to Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president and general manager of airplane development Mike Delaney. Speaking with reporters during a pre-Paris Airshow briefing in Seattle, Delaney noted that airlines have managed to open 140 new city pairs with the Dreamliner family because they offer seat costs comparable with a 777 at a much lower trip cost.

We’re going to put an airplane in that space that has the economics that nobody can touch, and what it will do is open up the city pairs and the economics that nobody else can. That’s the part that [Airbus executives] don’t tell you about,” said Delaney. “The key to the NMA is we’re going to do exactly in that market what we did with the 787…The traffic we predict will grow by about 30 percent based on the ability to open up city pairs that don’t exist today. That’s the value proposition. That’s why all the airlines are all excited. They don’t see a replacement of the 757. They see the future.”

For Boeing, the future of the 4,500- to 5,000-nautical-mile-range NMA starts with introduction some time around the middle of the next decade, as infrastructure, capacity and frequency constraints stand to become far more pronounced than the limitations with which airlines must cope today.

There will be a growing need for an airplane in that category,” opined Air Lease executive chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy during this past spring’s International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) conference in San Diego. “It’s not magnified today, but if you look at the lifecycle of the airplane, it is significant. Don’t forget the 737 is fifty years old this year.”

Most of the 57 airlines with which Boeing has consulted on its concept for an NMA have expressed a desire for better cabin comfort and lower turn times at airports, clearly suggesting a preference for twin-aisle design. Delaney explained that designers cannot plausibly stretch an airplane designed to carry as many as 270 seats in a dual-class configuration beyond the length of a 757. “If you stretch a single-aisle NMA, it’s about 18 to 25 feet longer than a 757,” he estimated. “I’m not exactly sure that’s optically an airplane you want to be on. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in row 65E waiting to get off.”

Engine Considerations

Speaking at ISTAT alongside Udvar-Hazy, AerCap Holdings CEO Angus Kelly noted that engine developments have not reached the stage at which such an airplane would appeal to a global customer base, however. “The key part of this is the engine technology,” said Kelly. “If you’re going to be searching for that window between the A321 market and the 787 market…you need a bigger engine; you need a more efficient engine. It’s not there yet.”

As always, cost will prove a key consideration, and Kelly argued that to keep costs down one might want a lower-thrust engine that might not necessarily offer the required performance.

If you have a 40,000-pound-thrust engine, that might be good for some of your customer base, but is it good for all of them?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “And if its 45,000 pounds of thrust, it’s going to be a more expensive airplane, and that’s the challenge they have to get right.” 

From Delaney’s perspective, the biggest challenge lies with integrating the engine with the airplane, regardless of thrust requirements.

Delaney called the NMA a transformational program for the company, but not one that can’t work from a cost perspective. “People don’t understand the payback we got from the 787 and how much we harvested in the 777X,” he stressed.

Among all of the required suppliers for the NMA, Boeing has spoken to only the three big engine companies, said Delaney. “The very specific reason is because the engine-airframe is so highly integrated,” he said. “We go through a series of iterative processes with them and what we tell them is designed to push the boundaries of the airplane.

The engine companies are responding very well; we’re very pleased with the technical interaction with all three companies [and] how they are going to try to optimize,” he added. “What they try to guess and what they can’t [know], which is the secret sauce of the whole thing and one of the most guarded secrets in the Boeing company, is how to integrate an engine into an airplane…It’s all about installation effects and that’s the keys to the kingdom and that’s what we work with them on now.”