Critics joke that Boeing’s New Mid-market Airplane (NMA) launch is taking almost as long as NASA did to get Apollo 11 off the pad, following JFK’s famous man-on-the-Moon declaration.
The manufacturer began publicly discussing its “middle-of-the-market” studies at the 2014 Singapore air show and, six years on, it is no nearer to finding an answer. New chief executive David Calhoun has halted Boeing’s existing evaluations while Airbus is rocking the much talked-about market to replace the 757 with its A321XLR.
Where Boeing goes next with the NMA is unclear. But it cannot sit back and leave the sector open to its European rival.
Airbus has already sold over 450 XLRs and is confidently predicting it will shift at least 1,000. So if Boeing’s strategy was to confuse potential Airbus customers by urging them to wait for a game-changing all-new design, then it looks to have failed.
The pain that productionising the 787 created is legendary, so Boeing’s hesitance in making another huge industrial commitment is no surprise. But the 737 Max crisis has compounded the situation, forcing a complete rethink as Seattle ponders its long-term strategy in the sub-787 sector.
Prior to its grounding last year, the 737 Max was just about holding its own against the baseline A320neo. However, the Max 10 double-stretch threatened to be little more than an irritant to the longer-legged A321neo. And Airbus has now knocked it out of the park with its XLR strategy.
Aviation history books are littered with the tombstones of aircraft manufacturers who dithered about long-term investment in their product lines. But what should Boeing do? After four iterations since its 1966 launch, the 737 platform has undoubtedly run out of road. So a clean-sheet design is the only option.
Boeing needs to be wary of the A321’s development potential. Not only could Airbus leverage A220 structures technology to enlarge its biggest single-aisle, but it could also benefit from any powerplant advances developed for a new Boeing project.
As it works to resolve the Max crisis, Seattle faces one of the biggest strategy dilemmas in its 104-year history. And to paraphrase the famous Apollo flight director Gene Kranz, doing nothing “is not an option”.