Boeing has hinted that it is following Airbus's thinking on the timing of the next-generation narrowbody, predicting that it could now be available later than the 2015 timeframe previously forecast. In the near term, Boeing is starting to favour increased output of 737s to satisfy pressing demand for replacement narrowbodies.

Airbus and Boeing have been saying that the technology necessary to yield a 15-20% performance improvement for new narrowbodies would be unavailable until at least 2015, and the European airframer recently disclosed that it does not now see the new single-aisle aircraft being available until the "2017-2020 timeframe".

Scott Carson, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive, says Boeing may also push a 737 replacement back. "The market response...tends to want to push replacement thinking out a little," he says. "But we're still prepared for 2015."

If the 737 replacement programme is postponed, Boeing is likely to deliver a product refresh for the next-generation 737 family in the next few years, says Carson.

Boeing's narrowbody product line is expected to garner the most orders among the manufacturer's aircraft offerings in 2008 as US airlines finally join a four-year global ordering surge for single-aisle aircraft, says Carson.

But US airlines still face a need to replace hundreds of ageing, fuel-thirsty Boeing MD-80-series aircraft, driving demand for new 737 sales, he adds.

The market environment has prompted Boeing to rethink its "cautious" production rate strategy on the 737. Boeing delivered 737s at an average rate of 31 a month in 2007, three fewer than the 34 narrowbodies built monthly by Airbus.

A320-series output is rising to 40 aircraft a month in 2010, four of which will be assembled on the new production line in China.

"We've been resisting the temptation to match our competitor's numbers," Carson told Cowen & Co's annual aerospace and defence conference.

However, Boeing is finalising studies on the capability of its supply base to sustain a production rate jump and the market's interest in higher 737 output. Carson plans to review the findings of the studies within two months.

"It feels like there might be enough solid demand to do it," he says. "The reason is there are still 500 MD-80-class airplanes out there in the fleet that are not very fuel-efficient."

Source: Flight International