When United Airlines confirmed an order in December 2019 for the 50 Airbus 321XLR (Xtra Long Range) to be delivered from 2024, they were added to a growing order list of 400+ aircraft. UAL also became the latest USA carrier to order the type, behind American Airlines (50 aircraft), Jet Blue (13), and Frontier will get 18 via its parent company.
Nine months before the United order, there were reports that United, Qantas, Icelandair and Delta were all interesting in Boeing’s concept for the New Mid-Market Airplane (NMA) dubbed the Boeing 797.
The original NMA (dubbed 797 in some quarters) focused on a 757 replacement before being expanded to include a possible successor to the 767. The FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency issued airworthiness directives for the Boeing 757, making it mandatory for operators to inspect each aileron actuator on 757s within 1,760 flight hours from that date. The FAA also stated that repeat inspections must be carried out every 1,100 flight hours on Boeing’s recommendations. The more downtime, the more money it costs the airline.
Early in 2019, the NMA concept seemed to be ready for the market, focused on two core versions; a 225-seat NMA-6X and a larger 275-seat NMA-7X. The expectation was that the NMA-7X would be the first version to fly, and then the more petite version/versions would follow.
At the end of June 2019, the impact of the 737 Max crisis created a need for a leadership change. Mark Jenks moved from being vice president and general manager of Boeing’s NMA development to lead the 737 MAX program. Mike Sinnett, who previously worked on the 787, the 747 and the 737NG, came on board to lead NMA. Sinnett took on this role alongside his current duties as VP of Product Strategy and Future Airplane Development. Overall this was seen as a downgrade for the 797 project. Bank of America released this statement: “…seems a clear sign that the NMA program is on ice. While this doesn’t imply the NMA program won’t happen, it now appears it won’t happen anytime soon.”
Meanwhile, what airlines have been ordering is the Airbus A321 XLR.
On June 17, 2019, Airbus issued a press release that:
“Following the very positive feedback from the market, Airbus has launched the A321XLR … thus becomes the next evolutionary step which responds to market needs for even more range … bringing 30% lower fuel burn per seat than previous-generation competitor aircraft. Starting from 2023, the aircraft will deliver an unprecedented Xtra Long Range of up to 4,700nm … with this added range, airlines will be able to operate a lower-cost single-aisle aircraft on longer and less heavily travelled routes – many of which can now only be served by larger and less efficient wide-body aircraft”
By the middle of the Covid ravaged summers of 2020, airlines had ordered 450 planes, including from Qantas (36 aircraft) and American Airlines and United Airlines (50 each), three long-standing Boeing customers who gave up waiting to hear on the NMA. Airlines cannot wait forever for an announcement to come for an aircraft that is still on a drawing board (technically CAD software) and for which Boeing had said was being relooked at.
And finally, one commentator made this observation in 2019 when asked if Boeing will launch the 797: “what this completely ignores the need for a brand-new engine. The principal engine makers do not appear to be convinced about the market potential and Rolls Royce have already announced they will not compete. There is no point in offering this aircraft without a next generation engine offering significant improvements in fuel consumption. It is likely that by the time such an engine could be in service the 321XLR and LR will have already captured much of the market.”
After almost two years of silence – in which Boeing dealt with Covid, the decimation of air travel, bankrupt airlines, massive downsizing, the 737 Max recertification, the end of the 747, and years of delays delivering the 777X – Boeing finally commented on January 27, 2021.
Speaking on Boeings 4th quarter earning call, Dave Calhoun, Boeing CEO, commented that any rival model Boeing would/could build to the Airbus 321XLR was “pretty much in the right space with respect to where next development efforts lean.” He also told those on the call that “we are really progressing well on our engineering and manufacturing technology development so that we’re ready when that moment comes to offer a really differentiated product. So, I’m sure it’s not a lot of rocket science for you to add up and guess where things end up. But we’re not going to call out that point design. This isn’t the moment.”
In other words, we have nothing firm to announce and yet in the comments is an indication that the company is focused on this mid-range market rather than the replacement for the 737 when that day surely comes.
Guy Norris @ Aviation Week reported February 2, 2021, that:
“Key NMA program elements which remain germane to the current A321XLR competitor point design include an overriding focus on a twin-aisle design capable of 5,000 nm missions that could be developed for single-aisle production costs. Program timing has, however, completely changed after the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the original NMA plan the larger variant, dubbed internally the 7K7-7X, was provisionally targeted at entry-into-service in 2025. Now the revised plan is thought to be aimed at entry-into-service of the -5X in the late 2020s pending a potential go-ahead in 2022 or 2023.”
When airlines know there could be larger models to follow, it does not always work. Ask Airbus with their A380. When they failed to deliver the extended version, their reputation was severely damaged. In the end, for Boeing, this will be a pragmatic decision – if the airlines what the largest one first, and there are enough orders, Boeing will find a way to deliver what the market wants!
After the 787 and 777-X use of composite materials in the fuselage and wings, the NMA is sure to use it. Likely, the GE/CFM joint venture engine & Pratt & Whitney will provide engine options for airlines. Rolls Royce are yet to say whether the delay with “entry into service” will allow them to re-join the contest utilising their UltraFan engine or whether their corporate losses and downsizing will mean their 2019 decision to withdraw was their final word.
Only time will tell if chasing a market that already has a lead player, rather than taking the lead in the small aeroplane market, is a wise move. Inadvertently, what Covid may have done is allow Boeing a chance to catch up with an NMA model (or three) whilst it clears the backlog of Max planes and orders.
Boeing could yet pull off a remarkable feat that many (including this writer) never thought was possible a year ago.\
Managing Editor – Flightcon International