Recent pronouncements by Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney that the airframer prefers to take a clean-sheet approach to the next-generation narrowbody are underpinned to a degree by a genuine concern about new entrant aircraft from Bombardier and Comac of China.
Pointing specifically to Comac's aggressiveness with its C919 narrowbody and the other new entrant aircraft from Canada, Japan and Russia, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of strategic planning and analysis Jerry Allyne told attendees at the 36th annual FAA Aviation Forecast Conference: "We spend a lot of time asking ourselves how we are going to compete."
Allyne later told ATI and Flightglobal it was tough to predict which manufacturer would survive, but in the long-term with their government support and 50-year planning window, "the Chinese are unstoppable".
For the short term it appears Boeing is leaning against re-engining in favour of a clean-sheet narrowbody design. Allyne explains internal evaluations at Boeing continue to determine the type of technology available in a six-to-seven year window to achieve certain operational performance improvements that would make a new aircraft compelling to customers.
Veteran industry analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group believes "Airbus is doing the right thing", by offering the re-engined A320neo. He remains unconvinced that improvements in narrowbody airframe technology are readily available, stressing the Comac C919 specs are "similar to a 1988 model [Airbus] A320". He also highlights a $6 billion cost delta in the $9 billion spend necessary for a clean-sheet design compared with $3 billion for a re-engined narrowbody.
But Allyne explains as Boeing continues to study narrowbody options it has to consider production implications for a re-engined aircraft. He believes if Boeing opted to re-engine there would still be demand for current Next Generation 737s. At some point if customers prefer a current version A320 they'll have a weight penalty due to the added weight from the A320neo's reinforced wing and pylon. He believes the heavier aircraft would be standard to eliminate variability in the A320's wing production. If Boeing did something similar some customers could be frustrated by the extra weight, says Allyne.
While acknowledging Boeing has "a lot on its plate" at the moment with the 787 and 747-8 certification programmes and the aggressive 787 production ramp-up, Allyne says Boeing is carefully watching development of the Airbus A350, and relative to that aircraft's performance, "what we need to do in the 777 space".