Schrödinger’s Plane: Boeing NMA or re-engined Boeing 767?

Hints about Boeing developing a new aircraft, dubbed the Boeing New Midsize Airplane (NMA) or the Middle of the Market (MOM) aircraft, have been around for quite a while. In 2015, the now-retired Boeing Commercial Airplanes sales chief, John Wojick, commented that the manufacturer is looking at the possibility to develop a new aircraft for the middle market.

But now, reports have emerged that Boeing is also looking into the possibility to steer away from the NMA and improve the 767 instead. Reportedly, the foundation of the re-engined aircraft would be the 767-400ER, with General Electric’s (GE) GEnx engines powering the newest iteration of the wide-body, which made its first commercial flight with United Airlines in 1982. The main focus of the 767-X study is a freighter – however, as FlightGlobal reports, the Chicago-based offices are also lingering around with the idea to apply the 767-X case to carry passengers as well.

During AIR Convention Europe, Drew Magil, the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Managing director for Marketing in Europe, highlighted that Boeing’s strategy “has always been to cover the market with a complete line of planes”, adding that the company has “a complete lineup”. Yet Magil also touched upon the fact that there is “a strong market between the 737 and the 787”, something the company calls “the middle market”.

“More range than the 757, bigger than the 737, smaller than the 787”, Magil described the potential aircraft. While the NMA is what Boeing “is talking to airlines about”, Airbus is already amassing orders for three aircraft, which serve the market’s requirements: the A330-800, A321XLR and the A321LR. The former is a wide-body, typically seating between 220 and 260 passengers on board. The LR and XLR typically seat between 180 and 220 passengers, but the A321XLR can fit up to 244 passengers in a single-class layout, according to Airbus.

Up until now, it was an open secret that Boeing plans to  build a new aircraft to serve the middle market. However, with sources indicating that Boeing is also looking into the 767 re-engine, nobody knows what is in Boeing’s box labeled Middle of the Market aircraft.

Changing flight paths

But why are both manufacturers so keen to serve the middle of the market, with an aircraft, which Ron Baur who served as United Airlines’ Vice President in Fleet Management between 2010 and 2017, described as a “757 on steroids”?

Simply put, the aviation industry is slowly shifting away from the hub-and-spoke model. As air travel becomes more accessible due to cheapening costs and economic growth around the globe, the number of city pairs connected has also increased drastically. In 2018, around 22,000 city pairs were connected with scheduled flights, according to IATA, amounting to an increase of 1,300 direct connections compared to 2017, or an increase of more than 10,000 compared to 2000. Mainline carriers are venturing into direct, point-to-point flights on routes, which were previously too thin to operate, but still do not have enough demand for wide-body aircraft or are unreachable by the most popular narrow-bodies, the 737 or the A320.

For example, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) announced new routes on August 8, 2019 – one of the new routes, from Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) to Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport (CMN), Morocco will be flown by a Boeing 757, nicknamed the Flying Pencil. American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) will serve the fairly thin route (operated only during the summer months three times per week) with their Boeing 757-200, which the airline configures the three-class cabin in two ways: one variant seats 176 passengers, the second can fit up to a maximum of 188 passengers.

Such aircraft as the 757 still find their place under the sun – operating routes that do have enough demand to sustain a connection, yet not enough to make a wide-body aircraft economically viable. As of December 2018, more than half of the total delivered 757s are still flown – 669 out of 1049, according to data. However, the Boeing 757 is quite outdated – Boeing closed its production line in 2005.

Thus, not only there is a demand for new, narrow-body aircraft with exceptional range capabilities, but replacing the aging Flying Pencils is also a concern for many operators. Airbus has provided exactly that with two separate aircraft – the A321LR and the A321XLR. The former is already in service, as Arkia took delivery of the first A321LR on November 14, 2018.

The Airbus A321XLR is exactly what Baur asked for in 2016 – a 757 on steroids, as the XLR has more range, can carry the same amount of passengers while burning less fuel. During the Paris Air Show 2019, the newest A321 became a blockbuster – over the course of the event alone, the European manufacturer amassed over 200 orders.

Not as easy as A B C

Yet the wide-body Middle of the Market aircraft Airbus provided to customers has stayed in the shadows of the A321XLR’s success. As of September 30, 2019, the A330-800 has a whopping 10 orders to its name. This is the first indication as to why a re-engined 767 would not work, at least for passenger service, as both the A330neo and the 767-400ER carry a similar amount of passengers – A330-800 can seat a maximum of 406 passengers, while the 400ER is allowed to fly 409 in an all-economy configuration.

Even if the newest iteration of the type would be based on an old platform, the manufacturer would still have to make changes to the aircraft’s design. According to the report, Boeing is looking into fitting the GEnx engines on the 767-400ER platform. Currently, the 400ER uses General Electric CF6-80C2. GE claims that the GEnx offers “up to 15% improved fuel efficiency and 15% less CO2” compared to the CF6, but the new engine would be much bigger in diameter (106 in versus 111 in), length (168 in versus 184.7 in) and weight (9,860 lb versus 13,552 lb), potentially offsetting the balance of the aircraft – just like with the 737 MAX. Both the 737 and the rumored 767-X have issues with ground clearance due to the bigger engines, thus Boeing would also update the landing gear design on the new 767.

But the company has not produced a passenger version of the 767 since June 2014, when Air Astana accepted the last passenger-configured plane of the type, according to Boeing’s commercial data. While the company still produces freighters and the KC-46 Pegasus, those do not include seats, amidst other must-haves for passenger aircraft. Restarting production would not be a walk in the park, as supplies for the interior and production lines would need re-arrangements, even if the passenger version of the re-engine would be built under the same roof as the current 767 freighters.

In addition, the company, which is amidst the 737 MAX crisis, would have to think twice before putting a new engine on an old aircraft – Boeing’s public image is already at an all-time low. Thus, the combination of low demand, as showcased by the 767-X’s direct competitor, potential complex design changes, production difficulties and a rocky relationship with the public potentially rules out a re-engined passenger version of the 767.

The aforementioned MAX situation has created a never-ending headache for Boeing executives. Furthermore, the 777X timeline is getting pushed back because of issues with its GE9X engine, as General Electric was forced to redesign a crucial component in the power plant.

It is clear that the company wants to compete for the Middle Market, replacing the outgoing Pencils and introducing new aircraft into airline fleets. But now, the question is whether the company has enough cash to splash. Q2 2019 was the biggest loss in Boeing’s history – the manufacturer’s financial statement read a net loss of $2.9 billion. Most of the loss was attributed to the fact that the company took a charge of $5.6 billion related to the MAX groundings. Boeing is set to provide an update on its financial situation on October 23, 2019, when it will announce its Q3 financial results.

Initially, the manufacturer aimed to launch the NMA in 2025 – two years after Airbus plans to deliver the A321XLR to airlines for commercial service. However, with the 737 MAX crisis, which has emptied the pockets of Boeing, the goal of NMA operating for an airline in 2025 might get pushed back a few years, losing crucial time to its direct competition.

Seemingly, with the current circumstances, Boeing is in a paradox – does it have enough cash to design a new aircraft? If not, can the company afford the public relations hit of developing a new-on-an-old-frame jet, together with the expenses of re-adjusting its production lines?

One thing is clear – Boeing needs to respond to Airbus’ attempts to capture a market, which Boeing believes to be more than 4,000 aircraft in the next 25 years.


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