Boeing CEO Jim McNerney believes strides achieved by engine manufacturers make a re-engined narrowbody viable in the near term.
Speaking to attendees at the Morgan Stanley Global Industrials Unplugged Conference today McNerney said Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric "have some pretty good engines there".
As a result he believes "the re-engine case is stronger than I anticipated it would be, which doesn't mean that that's what we'll decide".
Pratt & Whitney is currently developing the PurePower PW1000G geared turbofan engine for entry into service in 2013 on Mitsubishi's MRJ and later on the Bombardier CSeries, the closest competitor to Boeing's 737.
General Electric through its CFM joint venture with Snecma is developing the Leap-X engine slated for service readiness by 2016 and has not yet been selected by an aircraft manufacturer.
Rolls-Royce, while not committing to a new narrowbody engine programne yet, has explored developments that could see increases in engine core temperature that reduce time on wing between overhauls, but deliver overall operating cost savings through improved fuel efficiency.
Re-engining is a widely discussed possibility for both the A320 and 737, but neither airframer has made any commitments beyond delivering incremental improvements in efficiency.
Both Boeing and Airbus have maintained that engine technology has been an important driver in any decision regarding the narrowbody market, as both airframers seek to deliver gains in efficiency in the range of 15-20% for operators.
McNerney says that a derivative re-engined 737 would cost in the range of 20-30% of a full development programme.
As Boeing and Airbus have looked at their respective next steps towards a narrowbody replacement, the targets for entry into service have slid continually to the right. Three years ago, both airframers entertained mid-decade availability for next generation narrowbody products, however, the timeframe has moved to 2020 or beyond at the earliest, with neither side being the one to blink first.
McNerney believes that his guess is "that Boeing and Airbus will jockey for position. Who goes first will depend less on sort of a cute strategy and more on who matures the technologies they need."
If Boeing decides to "go with a composite fuselage based on our lead and being able to manage composites, and think we can get there first, we may decide to go first. Engine technology will probably be a push", and airframe technology could be a discriminator, explains McNerney.
Referencing the two years of delays endured by Boeing on the 787 McNerney says: "We've learned the hard way on how to design and build composites."
But McNerney believes Boeings compostie experience is "really going to pay off when we re-do the 777 and when we take a look at the narrowbody. It's the bleeding edge -- eventually, the innovator's advantage will come back to us. Right now it hurts like hell."