Six months ago, Boeing was expected to make a splash with the launch of its NMA at the Paris air show, with airlines from the US majors to aircraft lessors lining up to see how Boeing would respond to the issue of an aging fleet in the segment.
But after the fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8s – one in October, the other in March – industry players became sceptical that Boeing had the capacity to dedicate the time and energy to the project as it battled a deluge of criticism in the wake of the accidents.
In the meantime, on 17 June Airbus seized an opportunity to launch the A321XLR, announcing a launch commitment for 27 of the new stretched A321LR from lessor Air Lease.
"I have no doubt that this will be highly utilised aircraft," Air Lease chief executive John Plueger told FlightGlobal on the day of the announcement.
So, how and when will Boeing respond?
"Boeing is going to continue to look at different options – where they fit in the market, price and efficiency," GECAS chief executive Alec Burger told FlightGlobal at the air show. "They’ll move beyond the Max at some point, and they’ll figure out where they need to be in the next product."
Some lessors remain more sceptical, however.
"The XLR is definitely going to have an impact on the Boeing NMA, certainly on the smaller size of the spectrum," Plueger says. If developed, Boeing’s NMA would have 200-270 seats and 4,000-5,000nm (7,400-9,300km) range, which would compete directly against the A321.
"I’m worried about the timing of the NMA and when it gets to the marketplace," adds Plueger. "I think it’s a little late." That said, he also notes that Air Lease does not yet know the price, the performance parameters and "all the things we need to evaluate an aircraft".
The US majors have been big drivers of Airbus’s and Boeing’s plans to launch middle-of-the-market aircraft, given the huge replacement requirements for their ageing Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 fleets. Together, the three airlines have nearly 400 jets in service still, Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer shows.
Prior to the Max grounding, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines expressed interest in the type and encouraged Boeing to launch the aircraft soon. For its part, United has publicly acknowledged that it is considering a variety of aircraft in addition to the NMA, including additional Boeing 787s as well as the Airbus A321LR and A330neo programme.
Then on 19 June, American Airlines put its faith in Airbus by placing a marquee order for 30 Airbus A321neos and 20 A321XLRs. The airline’s president Robert Isom said the jets would replace its fleet of 34 Boeing 757-200s, as well as adding new long-haul narrowbody capabilites.
URGENCY ECLIPSES THE NMA
“It is unfortunate that Boeing’s current situation leaves the NMA in a very precarious position,” Peter Chang, chief executive of CDB Aviation tells FlightGlobal.
Speaking on the first day of the show, Boeing Commercial marketing vice-president Randy Tinseth said the company's focus is the safe return to service of the 737 Max, but confirmed that the timeline for NMA remains stable: "Our plans are to look at potential offerability of the NMA this year, and entry into service would be around 2025, so those plans haven't changed."
Tinseth noted that Boeing foresees long-term demand for about 4,000-5,000 aircraft in the "mid-market" category. "Those airplanes would come from three places – upgauging from single-aisle market, downgauging from widebody market, and if you optimise it for that market you'll stimulate some demand as well."
Air Lease executive chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy notes that the airframer "is spending a lot of resources" on the NMA. "They have hundreds of people working full time on that project," he says. "Due to tragic events, other priorities have emerged... so I believe until those issues are fully resolved this project will be in cold storage."
“The most difficult job today is sitting on the board of Boeing,” says another lessor senior executive, speaking on background to FlightGlobal at the Paris air show. “The risk variables are in play are the greatest ever in the last 40 years. If you were to exclude the Max situation – as in, it never happened – the decision around the NMA was always going to be difficult. Now you layer on the Max dynamic, the variables are very complex.”
“Certainty the highest priority for us is the 737 Max safe return to service… We have prioritised our resources accordingly as we continue to work on our NMA effort in parallel" said Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg in late April.
Boeing is still eyeing “a 2025 entry-into-service date”, he added. “We still have work to do before we get to an authority-to-offer a decision. We're still working on a pace to try to do that this year, as we previously announced.”
But even if the NMA were to be launch on schedule, both Airbus and Boeing have experienced significant delays in several of their new aircraft programmes.
"My message to both manufacturers – Airbus and Boeing – is to focus on delivering the aircraft on time and on spec," says Peter Barrett, chief executive of SMBC Aviation Capital.
As the Paris air show draws to a close, whether or not Boeing still launches its conceptual plans for the NMA in 2019 remains anyone’s guess.
After a tumultuous few months, Boeing has at least during Paris been given a vote of confidence from British Airways parent IAG for its Max programme with the order of 200 jets.
What the terms are of the agreement and what IAG paid are unknown, but it can be assumed it would not have signed the deal if it was not confident the Max would return to service. And when it does, the question for airlines, lessors and Boeing alike will again return to the launch of the NMA.
Source: Cirium Dashboard