Boeing is likely to decide by year end whether to go ahead with a larger version of its 737 MAX, one that would replace the current -9 MAX with a bigger model referred to as the -10 MAX, a leading airplane leasing executive said Monday.
Earlier on the opening day of the Farnborough Air Show, Boeing finally confirmed it is changing the design of the smallest model in that airplane family, the 737-7 MAX, by stretching the fuselage to add two extra seat rows.
Southwest Airlines and Westjet of Canada, which together account for 55 of the 60 orders for the original -7 MAX design, have agreed to the change, Boeing sales chief John Wojick said.
With Boeing also studying a completely clean-sheet airplane it has dubbed the New Middle-market Airplane, or NMA, the jetmaker’s engineers could have their hands full in the next few years.
John Plueger, the new chief executive of airplane lessor ALC, said Boeing’s consideration of the 737-10 MAX option is a direct response to the runaway sales success of the Airbus A321.
Airbus has sold more than 1,100 of those aircraft, while Boeing’s slightly smaller rival 737-9 MAX has sold just over 400.
“Their answer is the -10 MAX,” said Plueger, who added that ALC is working closely with Boeing in studying the idea.
“This is an airplane we’re very interested in,” he said. “I believe we’ll see a decision on the -10 MAX by the end of the year.”
At a public presentation at Farnborough Monday morning, Boeing sales chief John Wojick was much more circumspect, saying “we’ve got time.”
Yet ALC has insight into Boeing’s private thinking.
ALC’s now-executive chairman Steve Udvar-Hazy is a major industry player with great sway over both Airbus and Boeing. Plueger said Udvar-Hazy still works with both airplane manufacturers to determine the best configuration for future airplanes.
Plueger said Boeing is “looking at the -10 MAX as intensely as they are looking at the middle of the market (NMA) airplane.”
A 737-10 MAX is a much bigger engineering challenge than the simple stretch announced to the 737-7 MAX.
The bigger airplane will need bigger engines, and then taller main landing gear to keep the engines high enough off the ground.
Plueger said the current -10 MAX studies consider replacing the LEAP-1B engine from CFM International on the -9 MAX model with a variant of the bigger LEAP-1C engine. This engine was originally designed to power the forthcoming C919 single-aisle jet built by COMAC in China.
Because these engines are heavier, the wing will need reinforced. And because the landing gear is longer, Boeing will have to re-engineer it to fit into the wheel well.
Plueger said Boeing sees that there is a market, and he expects the jetmaker’s board to greenlight the project. He said the tentative entry-into-service date is late 2021.
“We’d like Boeing to move it up sooner,” Plueger said.
Another major industry player at the Air Show backed Boeing’s separate plan for the all-new NMA mid-size jet that’s proposed to enter service about 2025.
Airbus has attempted to dismiss the possibility of Boeing building the NMA by arguing that no new breakthrough engine technology will be available until about 2030.
The chief executive of one of the big three engine makers disagrees.
GE Aviation CEO David Joyce in an interview backed Boeing’s suggestion that innovations in the new LEAP engines for the 737 MAX and the new big GE-9X engines for the 777X family could be adapted and applied to an engine of about 40,000 pounds thrust, ideal for the NMA.
“There’s a boatload of technology within the -9X and the LEAP engines, and we have a entire portfolio of other technologies we’ve been working on,” Joyce said. “Our plan is to take every single one of those technologies and find another home for them. That’s how that investment pays off.”
He said that since 2010, GE has spent $7.6 billion on research and development and another $6 billion on new plants and equipment to produce advanced engine technologies, including ceramic matrix composites in the engine core, additive manufacturing of intricate parts, carbon composite fan blades and fan cases, and titanium aluminide turbine blades.
“I think we could easily meet the demands of the middle of the market (airplane), provided we are comfortable with the business case,” Joyce said.
The business case depends on Boeing’s ability to sell the NMA at a price the airline world will pay.
ALC’s Plueger said the airplane will be a twin-aisle airplane, but “it’s a safe bet” its price will have to be set closer to that of narrowbody jets.
He projected that if Boeing goes forward, Airbus would respond by selling its A330neo very cheaply.
That pressure to build an all-new plane cheaply may be Boeing’s biggest obstacle.