Boeing's top commercial aircraft executives enter this year's show stressing one message above all others: that their prime focus remains to ensure the 737 Max returns safely to the skies.

"This won't be a typical air show for us by any means," Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Kevin McAllister tells FlightGlobal. "Our focus will be on the 737 Max return to service. We will spend time with our customers and suppliers."

Whether Boeing might announce aircraft orders at the show – perhaps orders for widebodies – remains unknown.

Regardless, McAllister says "the 737 Max is absolutely at the top of our minds", adding that the company finds itself in a "pivotal moment".

"We have to be humble and introspective and to make sure that an accident like this never happens again," he says.

Boeing is now waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration and other countries' regulators to certify its update to the 737 Max's manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS).

"We have great confidence in the updated software that we are bringing forward," McAllister says. "Also, we are very focused with our customers on training materials."

When the agency might sign off on the update remains uncertain, though some airlines have excluded 737 Max from their schedules until September.

In preparation for its return, Boeing has positioned "entry-into-service teams" with airlines, positioned spare parts near customers and held meetings with airlines in cities worldwide – part of an effort to help get as many 737 Max flying as quickly as possible when the grounding lifts.

"I think we have to be flawless with how we return this aircraft to service," McAllister says.

Meanwhile, Boeing continues to flight test its 737 Max 7, though it declines to speculate when the aircraft, the smallest 737 Max variant, might enter service.

While the airframer is focusing most intently on the 737 Max, development of the 777X also continues, and executives anticipate "a wave" of interest in the aircraft as airlines retire 777s and Airbus A330s in the coming years.

"The 777-9 – there is simply no direct competitor. And the -8 will bring great economics, range and flexibility," McAllister says. "We will connect markets that have never been connected before."

Boeing has said the 777-9 will fly this year, with deliveries starting next year.

At the same time, Boeing faces pressure to address the so-called middle of the market – a segment its proposed New Mid-market Airplane (NMA) would address.

But Boeing has not officially launched that programme, and Airbus seems poised to act first, with reports suggesting that at the show it might announce a new longer-range version of its A321neo called the A321XLR.

Boeing executives are downplaying such an aircraft's market appeal, questioning whether a narrowbody would have sufficient passenger comfort for the 8-9h flights it would be designed to operate.

"Is the customer going to be comfortable crossing the Atlantic in a narrowbody. It's a patch for a little bit, until we come up with the better mousetrap we have been looking at," says Boeing's vice-president of commercial sales and marketing Ihssane Mounir. "It makes me scratch my head."

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