Mike Bair, who helped shape Boeing's Dreamliner, now is busy pondering the many questions about replacing the 737.

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Farnborough, U.K. — This year’s biggest Air Show comes at a pivotal moment in the aviation business, one of those nervous periods when the future is cloudy and the designers of commercial jets refer to their business as a “sporty game.”

The man mapping out Boeing’s strategy to win the game is the former head of the 787 Dreamliner program, Mike Bair. As Boeing’s vice president of business strategy and marketing for commercial airplanes, Bair’s job is to plan for future Boeing jets.

In an interview at Farnborough, Bair addressed the questions that hang in the air as Boeing considers replacing its best-selling 737 jet family: When to launch? Which airframe design to use? Which engine technology? Where and how to build it?

Bair led the 787 program through its first four years of development — the vision stage. Last October, when the program hit serious production snags with its supply chain, Boeing replaced him with Pat Shanahan.

Yet Bair, 52, can take much of the credit for shaping the Dreamliner concept that became such a hot seller.

“The 787 was the experience of a lifetime,” Bair said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Today, he’s busy doing the vision thing again.

In characteristic rapid-fire sentences, Bair offered authoritative opinions on some of the big questions.

Bair said the 737 replacement will certainly have a carbon-fiber composite plastic structure. However, the 787 technology doesn’t scale down well enough.

For example, the top of a composite fuselage must be thick enough to withstand heavy hail. That fixed thickness adds proportionally more weight to a small jet.

Boeing is working with composites manufacturers to come up with different materials, but those aren’t ready yet. Bair said this is the main reason that Boeing in May shrank the team studying the 737 replacement, and postponed the expected service date by several years, to near the end of the next decade.

Bair said the replacement plane’s production must at least match the super-efficient 737 factory in Renton, which has rolled out thousands of jets and now works on a lean moving line. As Boeing gets its 787 line moving smoothly, it will figure out the efficiencies of composite assembly, he said.

But should Boeing stick to its 787-style global supply chain, despite its problems? Or, next time, should it cluster suppliers closer to the final assembly site?

Bair said that isn’t clear yet either. In any case, it would have been difficult to get the 787 partners to locate in Washington state, he said.

“Would the Japanese have built a factory in the U.S.?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”

For the 787, Boeing weighed the cost of transporting plane sections against the financial benefit of finding partners ready to invest.

“It’s an economic trade. In the end, you are trying to solve for the least costly solution,” he said. “And those equations will be different” for the 737 successor.

As for the jet engine to drive the 737 replacement, there are various possibilities.

Pratt & Whitney last week began flight tests on an innovative Geared Turbofan engine or GTF. A gearbox behind the GTF’s fan produces a 12 percent increase in fuel efficiency. But rival engine-maker GE contends that gears will be unreliable in service.

Bair believes that’s not an issue.

“(Pratt’s) technology is going to be fine,” Bair said. “The gearbox is robust and it works.”

The question is whether the GTF engine will deliver a substantial improvement over soon-to-be-available alternatives.

This week at the Air Show, GE countered Pratt with news of eCore — a program to develop a new engine core, the hot inner section of an engine, that by 2016 it says will provide even better fuel burn than the GTF.

And further out, both GE and Rolls-Royce are looking at an unducted fan design or UDF, which would not have an engine pod around the fan and would resemble a double-row propeller.

A UDF could produce much greater fuel efficiency, but must overcome two big drawbacks: it’s noisy; and a blade breaking off in flight could slice into the fuselage.

Bair said there’s some interesting thinking going on at the engine makers, but if these problems aren’t solved, the UDF is “a non-starter.”

Canadian plane-maker Bombardier has gambled early and gone with the GTF in the CSeries passenger jet it launched this week.

“On paper, it could be a pretty interesting little airplane,” said Bair.

With the 737 sold out for five years, Boeing has the luxury of waiting a while to see how the engine war works out.

“Hopefully, by then we’ll be in a position where it’s not such an unknown,” he said.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com