One cost-driven scenario for the new airplane is that Boeing will try to leverage the industrial approach and processes it has created in Everett to build the 777X.
FARNBOROUGH, England — Though industry analysts have long assumed Boeing’s next new jet would have an all-composite airframe like the 787, cost considerations may now favor a shift to building the 797 with a carbon composite wing and a metal fuselage.
Such a combination, similar to the forthcoming 777X jet built in Everett, would substantially increase the chances that Boeing will also build the 797 there.
“Boeing’s challenge is to make the plane affordable,” Steven Udvar-Hazy, executive chairman of Air Lease Corp. and a hugely influential figure in the aviation market, said in an interview Wednesday in London during the Farnborough Air Show.
The cost and complexity of composites manufacturing mean that may not be the way to go for building the plane’s fuselage, he said.
Boeing is still weighing all options, said Hazy, but “my gut feeling is that the new aluminum alloys available in the next decade may be a little more cost-effective.”
The jet’s composite wing is not in question. Because Boeing has honed the process of designing and manufacturing an exceptionally thin and aerodynamic wing out of composites, Hazy said he’s seen no discussion of anything but a composite wing.
Probably no outsider is as privy to Boeing’s thinking as Hazy. As he did on previous Boeing jet programs, he’s been closely advising the jetmaker about the performance capabilities and pricing required to make its New Mid-market Airplane (NMA), or 797, a sales success.
Boeing says it won’t decide on whether or not to launch this all-new jet until early next year. Publicly, it has said nothing definitive about the airplane’s design or the materials to be used.
For now, it’s struggling to come up with a business plan that can ensure the required multibillion-dollar investment will earn a return, as the 797 faces stiff competition from much-cheaper derivative models of Airbus’s A321 and A330 airplanes.
For that reason, said Michel Merluzeau, Bellevue-based aviation analyst with AirInsightResearch, “It’s a race to crush the costs.”
He said one cost-driven scenario is that Boeing will try to leverage the industrial approach and processes it has created in Everett to build the 777X.
Boeing built a huge new facility there to fabricate carbon composite wings, and in the main assembly plant it has installed a new highly automated wing assembly system. In addition, it’s developed a robotic system that transforms the way it assembles the 777’s metal fuselage.
For this reason, Merluzeau said, a metal fuselage and composite wing combination “definitely helps Everett’s case” as the location where the 797 will be manufactured and assembled.
In an interview in London, Merluzeau added that another company with specific expertise in designing and building metal fuselages and composite wings is Brazil’s Embraer.
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Boeing has just announced a deal to buy an 80 percent stake in Embraer’s regional jets and to collaborate on its KC-390 military transport. The regional jetmaker’s commercial E-jets are mostly metal with carbon composite tails. The KC-390 has wings made from composites.
Merluzeau wonders whether the metal/composites combination could also create a 797 role for Embraer.
Intense competition emerges
If anything, the Farnborough Air Show this week has produced more skepticism about whether Boeing will be able to get the 797 costs in line with market necessities. Airbus has highlighted its ability to squeeze the 797 by selling its A321neo at the small end of Boeing’s target market and its A330neo at the large end.
Scott Hamilton, Bainbridge Island-based aviation analyst with Leeham.net, also at the Air Show this week, wrote Wednesday that “the buzz on the sidelines and interviews with key observers and industry participants is that Boeing’s business case for the airplane appears to be getting weaker, not stronger.”
Hamilton was first to report this week that Boeing is weighing the possibility of making the 797 fuselage from metal rather than composite, though he said he has no information on which option is now favored.
Hazy said Boeing’s task to design the 797 is very difficult because, as Airbus has made clear at Farnborough, it plans to offer airlines good alternatives that will cost much less.
The 797 is conceived as a two-airplane family seating 220 to 270 passengers and with a range of about 5,000 nautical miles. It’s intended to be a twin-aisle airplane sized between the current 737 narrowbody and the 787 widebody.
As such, the 797 will fly more passengers and fly further than the hot-selling Airbus A321neo narrowbody jet.
To close the gap, Airbus has already designed a longer range version of its jet, called the A321LR, simply by adding up to three auxiliary fuel tanks in the belly of the airplane.
That crude method means the plane has less room for cargo or luggage, but the range is increased to 4,000 nautical miles.
Could an XLR kill the 797?
At Farnborough, Airbus has begun to talk about another more refined and even longer-range version, the A321XLR, that it could launch as early as next year — if Boeing launches the 797.
Hazy said the A321XLR will dispense with the separate auxiliary fuel tanks and instead put the extra fuel into an expanded center wing tank that’s an integral part of the airframe. Airbus will make other tweaks and increase the maximum take-off weight, allowing it to carry an extra four tons of fuel and increasing the range to about 4,400 nautical miles, Hazy said.
Airbus has in the past talked about more drastic upgrades, such as stretching the fuselage by a couple of seat rows or even putting on a new wing. Hazy said those options would be much more costly — a new wing would add $2 billion —and are “not top of the list.”
He said the less costly XLR concept would give the A321 a range above that of Boeing’s now out-of-production 757, a plane many airlines are seeking to replace.
That would make the XLR “a true transatlantic airplane,” Hazy said, and “a much more formidable competitor to the 797.”
Over 45 years of leasing airplanes in every corner of the globe, Hazy has developed an intimate knowledge of what airlines will buy. As a lessor, he puts his money where the demand is and is a huge customer of both Airbus and Boeing.
On Tuesday at the Air Show, he announced a big order for 75 of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8s, bringing his running order tally to more than 200 MAXs. Hazy agrees with Boeing’s description that the MAX 8 is sized “at the heart of the market,” where demand is strongest.
But at the larger end of the MAX family, just below the 797 target market, Hazy’s purchases reveal his skewed view of where that piece of the market is going.
He’s bought 170 A321s, including 141 A321neos. “We already have several airlines flying them over the Atlantic,” he said. But he’s bought no 737 MAX 10s, Boeing’s largest single aisle jet.
“We see huge demand for the MAX. We love the airplane,” Hazy said. “But at the big end, above 200 seats, the market demand is for the A321.”
The A321XLR could tilt the balance further and bite deep into Boeing’s potential 797 market.