The Boeing 737 was designed in the mid-60s. A lot has changed since then, as the manufacturer’s best-selling airplane went through four generations and a dozen variants, but the fundamentals remained the same. And now, as the story of 737 MAX shows, those fundamentals are causing a lot of problems. So, why not build a new aircraft from the ground up?
The first fact we have to discuss is that 737 itself, through constant upgrading, became a replacement for other, even later types. The initial 1967 design was, by modern standards, a regional airplane: with approximately 100 seats and 2,850 km range, it was barely on par with something like current Embraer E-jets. By design, longer ranges and larger capacities were for 757 – Boeing’s other narrow-body airliner.
But as the time passed, the 737 was stretched, enlarged and up-engined numerous times, and by the late 90s it had pushed into the 200+ seat 5000+ kilometer market with the new 737NG. The 757 production was discontinued in 2003, in part thanks to airlines buying 737 to do its job. So, replacing 737 would mean replacing 757 too. Something Boeing actually attempted to do numerous times.
Circles of the development hell
Somewhere between the 90s and the 2000s the Yellowstone project emerged: Boeing’s ambitious scheme to overhaul its entire lineup with three aircraft that would utilize the newest technology available. Those aircraft were codenamed Y1, Y2 and Y3.
Y2 became the 787 Dreamliner and Y3, set to replace 747 and larger variants of 777, possibly resulted in 777X – an upgrade instead of a revolution. Y1 was supposed to use a lot of research done for Y2, and thus become a miniaturized Dreamliner: all-composite, fly-by-wire and extremely efficient airliner, universal enough to replace all Boeing’s narrow-bodied aircraft.
In the early 2000s, the plan was to roll out the production model of Y1 by 2015. In 2010, Boeing’s patent became public, revealing a glimpse of the new project: a dream of all low-cost airlines and a bold new step for the industry. The aircraft was supposed to have T-tail and nearly elliptical fuselage cross section with twin-aisle 2-3-2 configuration, but retain drag-per-seat and weight-per-seat ratio comparable to single-aisle competitors. A variety of weight-optimization techniques, utilizing the newest composite structures, was explored. According to Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh, the company was already looking into converting their plants from metal to all-composite manufacturing.
But come 2011, the project was shelved. American Airlines (A1G) (AAL)’ decision to go for Airbus 320 certainly played a part in this, as after Boeing got a word of American’s choice, the new 737 generation was rushed into development. Less than four months later, the MAX was ready to take orders.
In 2014, Boeing CEO James McNerney disclosed that the Y1 project was not dead and the 737 MAX would likely be replaced by 2030 with something slightly bigger, but not dramatically different. Some of more innovative ideas may have been discarded, but the premise of all-composite elliptical fuselage remained.
It is possible McNerney was talking about the Boeing New Midsize Airplane (NMA), a replacement of 757 and 767. Predicted to be named 797, the NMA was more of a middle ground between 737 MAX and 787, possibly, taking just the longer range larger capacity duties of the former, but not replacing it altogether. Officially announced in 2015, the NMA was to launch before 2020 and enter service in the mid-20s.
Much of subsequent interest in the NMA rode on the premise of having twin-aisle loading speed with single-aisle cost of operations and a production timeline promising first deliveries within a decade.
But there were troubles with the elliptical fuselage strength and Rolls-Royce engines, and then delays came, and finally the 737 MAX crisis struck in early 2019. In early 2020, Boeing’s new CEO David Calhoun announced the clean sheet reevaluation of the NMA project, as the firm was focusing all its strength on saving the MAX.
…and more circles to come
But it is certain that the MAX will not be as it was: much of initial orders were cancelled and regaining customers’ trust seems almost impossible. One advice Boeing was receiving – including from Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, after his airline recalled their own order – was to abandon the tarnished 737 and get on with the new design.
Yet, as with many things, it is easier to tell than to do. The development costs money. As the MAX drama was unfolding, the industry got hit by its worst crisis yet – something Boeing dealt with decidedly worse than Airbus. Numerous problems with the 787 Dreamliner piled on top of that, resulting in a very grim situation for the manufacturer. Even if 797 development was almost completed numerous times, starting the manufacturing requires investments Boeing may have difficulty affording.
The development will mean not only a need for investments but temporary losses as well. Back in 2015, the deliveries were expected to start no earlier than 2025. With recent stoppages, at least several years have to be added to that, putting the bulk of the returns no earlier than 2030s.
And that is assuming the 797 can indeed replace the 737, which it was not set to do completely. If Boeing wants to accomplish that, either scaling down of the design, or procuring a completely new one will have to happen. Meaning even more investments and even further deadlines.
Choosing to do that would mean a decade of difficulties on top of difficulties for Boeing. One of the reasons Boeing chose to upgrade the 737 instead of replacing it was an ease of certification and pilot training, two things that are bound to stack up with all the other troubles. The new aircraft in the skies means another batch of risks too, as pilots inexperienced with the model often struggle to handle it.
And through those challenges, Boeing will have to compete not only with Airbus, who has a much better jump-off point to monopolize the post-crisis market, but new-and coming manufacturers, such as COMAC, as well.
On the other hand, sooner or later the change will have to happen, as even if MAX climbs out of the hole, the marathon of upgrading the 737 cannot go on forever. Boeing will have to endure such a change, one way or another.