Boeing’s founder, Bill Boeing, once said, “let no new improvement in flying and flying equipment pass us by” and so the aerospace giant that still bears his name must be bold and commit to a plane that every passenger will love if it’s to regain an equal share of the civil airliner market.
Currently, its share has slumped to 30 percent with Airbus having a wider selection of aircraft in the size that the industry is now demanding.
The plane that could change all that is dubbed the 797, and is a twin-aisle 220-280 seat aircraft with a range of about 8,500km to replace the widely used 239-seat 757 and 245-290 seat 767 models.
The $15 billion dilemma for Boeing is how to match Airbus’s 244-seat single-aisle A321 XLR neo (extra-long-range new-engine-option) which is a hot seller and can fly up to 8,400km.
The problem is that while Boeing’s largest 737 MAX, the -10 model, can seat up to 230 its range is 2,400km less than the Airbus A321 XLR neo and that range is critical for today’s market for more non-stop flights.
And the initial orders for the A321 XLR neo include blue-chip Boeing customers – American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and the Qantas Group.
The Qantas Group has secured up to 36 Airbus A321 XLR neo aircraft for delivery from 2024 onwards but it’s not yet clear if they are for Jetstar or Qantas itself.
Stretching the MAX again will not work for Boeing so a clean-sheet design is required.
Many financial analysts argue for a slightly less risky single-aisle design to seat about 250 but that ignores the fact passengers dislike single-aisle aircraft with 3-3 seating – particularly for long journeys.
Certainly, passengers flew happily on single-aisle 707s in the 1960s but there was far more legroom and its range dictated that it stopped every five hours or so.
The A321 XLR neo can fly ten hours nonstop and the seating in economy is cramped which is a totally different scenario.
A single-aisle aircraft also lacks imagination, lacks appeal, and would be a waste of precious investment funds.
If Boeing is going to spend billions to build an all-new aircraft it needs to be something special, something exciting, and something that covers a wide segment of the market.
What Boeing needs is to go back to the future and build a twin-aisle design that was touted as far back as the 1980s first by its legacy merged company McDonnell Douglas and then its own 7J7 concept (below).
Both sported a 2-2-2 configuration for economy passengers, which could be pushed to 2-3-2 for a low-cost airline.
McDonnell Douglas had an order for 60 of what was called the DC-11 from Delta Air Lines but balked at the risk and pulled out of the deal.
The real gem in this 2-2-2 configuration is an almost doubling of overhead baggage space for passenger’s carry-on baggage and faster boarding which are huge issues in the US and Europe.
There is no question that this plane would be a passenger magnet, particularly in the post COVID world where personal space is paramount.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce was lyrical about the twin-aisle design saying prior to COVID that “Boeing would be mad not to build it.”
And the chief of the giant Delta Air Lines Ed Bastian has told employees “I hope that we’re going to be a launch customer on that program.”
Before COVID struck Boeing had defined two versions – the 797-6 with 228-passenger, which would fly 8,300km, and the 797-7 which would seat 267 in two classes.
The 797-6 would be launched first, followed by the larger 797-7. The range would enable the 797 to fly the vast majority of routes around Asia as well as most trans-Pacific routes and all trans-Atlantic routes.
Boeing sees the market at about 5000 to 7000 aircraft over 20 years and sees the aircraft as a stimulus to the market creating thousands of new routes thus new business.
Before COVID Boeing said there were 30,000 city pairs currently not linked which would be perfect for the 797.
Innovative financing will be needed, as the industry has lost billions, and the company will have to look to traditional suppliers in Japan and elsewhere to do more of the work and carry more of the cost burden.
And the X factor is that a twin-aisle 797 would send the morale at Boeing – which has been battered over the past two years – sky-high.