Boeing plans to showcase its largest planes this week at the Paris Air Show, but there's plenty of buzz about what will be missing: plans for updating its single-aisle best-seller.

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Boeing is bringing its big guns to the Paris Air Show. The widebody 787 Dreamliner and the massive 747-8, both passenger and freighter models, will land at Le Bourget airfield for the world’s premier aviation event that begins Monday.

But Boeing isn’t bringing what industry watchers want most: its answer to the strategic challenge posed by Airbus, Bombardier and others in the all-important market for smaller narrowbody jets, where the company’s cash cow is the aging, Renton-built 737.

With rival Airbus expected to announce some major orders in Paris for its upgraded A320neo narrowbody plane — featuring next-generation engines that promise a huge step-up in fuel efficiency — the heat will be on Boeing’s leadership.

“They don’t know what to do on the narrowbody. They are in a very, very dire situation,” said a senior airline executive in charge of fleet planning with a leading global carrier. “Airbus holds the cards and has been playing them very carefully.”

In Paris, Commercial Airplanes chief Jim Albaugh must convince airline executives that Boeing is not falling dangerously behind as his team weighs whether to build a completely new airplane or follow the simpler Airbus approach and just redesign the 737 wing to take those new engines.

“I don’t think we’re dithering at all,” Albaugh said in a pre-Paris interview. “I want to make sure we make the right decision.”

Albaugh likely will announce some significant jet deals for the large 777 and 747-8 airplanes at the Air Show — Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines are among the likely customers, according to industry reports. He said he all but finalized a significant order during the International Air Transport Association annual conference in Singapore this month.

Some analysts believe Boeing may even announce the 747-8 has completed its certification and is all set for first delivery next month.

Airbus said Saturday in Paris it will delay delivering two models of its key new widebody, the A350, by two years. That should certainly boost 777 and 787 sales.

But industry experts in Paris will focus most attention on the near-term strategic choice ahead in the crucial small-airliner segment, where Boeing estimates that over the next 20 years airlines will buy more than 23,000 single-aisle airplanes, worth $1.95 trillion at list prices.

These short-haul jets, the workhorses of domestic routes worldwide, represent aviation’s largest single market niche.

Boeing and Airbus split the global market about 50-50 right now. The 737 last year accounted for almost 60 percent of Boeing’s jet deliveries by dollar value, so the company can’t afford to have the A320neo tilt that balance significantly toward Airbus.

In April, Chief Executive Jim McNerney insisted Boeing has time to weigh its options because he doesn’t expect defections from his 737 customer base to the A320neo.

But the senior airline executive is skeptical Boeing can continue to play it cool if A320neo sales take off.

“Ask McNerney again in about a year, when the neo has 1,000 or 1,500 orders and the 737 is going sideways,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As Boeing ponders its narrowbody strategy, Airbus will be at full tilt in Paris.

The European jet maker likely will announce an order from Air Asia for as many as 175 A320neos. By the end of the Air Show, Airbus sales chief John Leahy could have significantly more than 500 total neo orders.

An Airbus executive hinted to Bloomberg News this month that in Paris the company may even announce a Boeing 737 customer switching to the A320neo.

Albaugh said Boeing has no inkling of any such lost customer.

“We’ve asked around,” he said. “I don’t have any intel on that at all.”

It’s not only Airbus that Albaugh must look out for in Paris.

Bombardier is installing robotic manufacturing equipment at the plants in Canada, Northern Ireland and China where its new CSeries jet will be manufactured. It’s added some small, pre-Air Show orders this month and is expected to announce several more in Paris, including one from Qatar Airways.

That could provide Bombardier the sales momentum it sorely missed a year ago at the Farnborough Air Show, when despite high expectations the CSeries won zero orders.

China and Russia will offer glimpses in Paris of further narrowbody competition scheduled to debut within five years. China’s COMAC will show off a cabin mock-up of its C919 narrowbody.

And top Boeing 737 customer Ryanair of Ireland is set to announce it will consult with COMAC on design of the Chinese plane, according to The Wall Street Journal. This is likely no more than an effort to get a lower price from Boeing on Ryanair’s next 737 deal. But it carries the implicit threat of Ryanair defecting, and so adds to the pressure on Boeing.

Certainly, some industry experts remain upbeat about Boeing’s competitive position.

Leading aviation-marketing guru Steven Udvar-Hazy is likely to announce in Paris that his Air Lease Corp. is ordering A320neos, but he also has advised Boeing on its potential all-new airplane. Udvar-Hazy argues that Boeing is in a strong position to go ahead with a new jet as development of the 787 Dreamliner winds down.

And Adam Pilarski, an analyst with aviation-consulting firm Avitas, also interprets Boeing’s still-vague talk of an all-new airplane as heralding a bold move ahead.

“It’s a sign they actually want to be the leader,” Pilarski said.

But the strategy is not without risks, he said. If Boeing promises a new jet to enter service in 2019, it must deliver on time.

“They cannot afford to screw up again as badly as they did on the 787,” said Pilarski. “That could seriously put their financial viability in question.”

There also is a danger that any jet Boeing does bring out will not improve performance dramatically enough to justify the investment.

“There isn’t a magical solution. There is not a revolutionary technology,” Pilarksi said. “And Airbus could perhaps leapfrog them a few years later if they come up with something only half-decent.”

Pilarski believes that if the A320neo gets significant momentum starting in Paris, Boeing may be forced to postpone an all-new airplane and follow the faster Airbus approach: putting a new-generation engine on the current 737.

In a pre-Paris briefing, Boeing vice president Nicole Piasecki made clear that putting a new engine on the 737 is still under consideration.

She argued that the current 737 delivers to airlines 2 percent better operating economics per passenger than the promised A320neo will in 2015, and that a re-engined 737 would restore the Boeing advantage to a full 8 percent.

Those figures are hotly contested by Airbus and derisively dismissed by the senior international airline executive. But assuming they are accurate, why would Boeing bother to spend $5 billion to $10 billion on a risky new airplane venture if it thinks a $1 billion or $2 billion re-engine program is enough to beat Airbus?

Piasecki said the “bigger, bolder move” of a new airplane would let Boeing incorporate “this incredible 787 technology” — the advances in composites technology and engineering know-how wrung so expensively from the much-delayed Dreamliner program.

To Albaugh, it’s a choice between “being evolutionary, low-risk” and “something that will truly be a game-changer.”

If Boeing goes for a re-engine, the 737 factory in Renton gets another life extension. If it’s a new airplane, Washington state will again be in a contest for its long-term manufacturing future against other potential locations.

Either way, with Boeing aiming to keep half the narrowbody market, it’s “a trillion-dollar decision,” said Piasecki.

Albaugh said he expects to decide this year. As he considers the choice, he’ll have to weigh what he hears from the industry heavyweights in Paris.

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