Although the Boeing 737 Max remains grounded, the situation has not stopped the US airframer from progressing with development of the largest variant of the aircraft family, the Max 10.

On 22 November, Boeing quietly unveiled the first flight-test Max 10, a variant designed to compete closely with the Airbus A321neo but one which has failed to attain nearly the same sales success.

Boeing 737 MAX 10

Source: Boeing

Boeing 737 MAX 10

Analysts see the 737 Max 10 as an aircraft with good economics that will fit well into the fleets of existing 737 Max customers, allowing them to fly nearly any route they might chose for a narrowbody.

But they note the Max 10’s sales prospects remain muted beside the A321neo, which has more range and capacity, and the ability to be further modified.

“The Max 10 is a nice addition and complement to Max operators. It is an aircraft that definitely will integrate well in existing Max fleets,” says Michel Merluzeau with industry consultancy AIR.

Chicago-based Boeing unveiled the first Max 10 during a ceremony for employees in Renton.

The company stresses its commitment to safety and customers, and says the Max 10 “offers the lowest seat-mile cost of any single-aisle airplane ever produced”.

Boeing also released an image of the aircraft, which the company expects will conduct its first flight in 2020.

Boeing declines to specify a service-entry timeframe, saying it depends on factors including certification by the US FAA of the Max family’s flight-control software. The company has been largely quiet about the Max 10’s development since regulators grounded the Max 8 and Max 9 in March.

Boeing launched the Max 10, the largest variant of the Max line-up, at the Paris air show in 2017 as a competitor to the A321neo.

The Max 10 will be capable of seating up to 230 passengers and, with an auxiliary fuel tank, have range of 3,300nm (6,100km). That is 10 more seats and about 250nm less range than 737 Max 9, according to Boeing’s figures.

Boeing holds orders for 531 Max 10s, with top customers including United Airlines, VietJet Air, Lion Air and Flydubai, according to Cirium fleets data.

But those orders are a fraction of the 3,142 A321neos sold by Airbus. That aircraft can carry 244 passengers and has range of 4,000nm, according to Airbus.

Further complicating Boeing’s position, Airbus is developing a 4,700nm variant, the A321XLR.

“Boeing is being beaten by a factor of five,” Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia says of the sales divergence. “This has become a serious problem [for Boeing].”

Regarding the A321neo interest, he adds: “It seems to be snowballing. Everybody seems to want one.”

Putting aside the 737 Max grounding, Aboulafia sees the Max 10 and A321neo segment, known in the industry as the “middle of the market”, as the only one in which Boeing is truly struggling.

Boeing has considered filling the niche with a new-development widebody dubbed the New Mid-market Airplane (NMA), which would enter service around the middle of next decade. But the 737 Max grounding has seemingly put those plans on hold.

Some analysts think Boeing will still move forward with NMA, but Aboulafia suggests Boeing might leapfrog NMA, moving straight to a 737 replacement known in industry circles as the “future single aisle” (FSA).

Larger variants of such an aircraft could compete where the A321neo and, indeed, the aging 757, currently sit, Aboulafia says.

Developing the FSA would likely take a few more years than developing the NMA, largely owing to the need for a new engine. Boeing could perhaps develop such a model by 2027, Aboulafia opines.

But the delay might be worthwhile. “Clearly the answer is a 757-class [jet],” Aboulafia says. “They do it right and get a killer product at the heart of the market.”