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Right now, the Boeing 797 is a ‘paper plane’ – a concept existing purely in hand-drawn sketches and digital pixels.
But the aircraft manufacturer could greenlight its next-gen jetliner as early as next year, with first commercial flights in 2025.
Boeing will position the 797 between the largest Boeing 737 jets – such as those which form the backbone of the domestic Qantas and Virgin Australia fleet – and the smallest Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner.
The seat count of the twin-aisle Boeing 797 is expected to be around 225 passengers assuming a two-class layout of business and economy, or as many as 260 in the all-economy floorpan favoured by low-cost airlines, with airlines offered two variants of the 797.
"One will be bigger and fly not quite as far, one will be smaller and fly farther," Boeing marketing vice president Randy Tinseth told Bloomberg.
Evolution of the Boeing 797
Boeing first went public with its plans at the 2015 Paris Air Show, using generic descriptors of a MOM jet (Middle of Market) or the Boeing NMA (meaning either New Mid-sized Airplane or New Market Airplane) with a medium range of about 8,400km (5,200 miles).
However Air Lease CEO Steven Udvar-Hazy, who is described as being “influential in shaping product strategy for Boeing and Airbus”, says that Boeing will christen its newest model as the 797 and create a clean-sheet design drawing on its experience with the 737MAX and 787 Dreamliner series.
“Call it a 797,” Udvar-Hazy says, “that’s what it’s going to be.”
Hitting the Trans-Atlantic sweet spot
A large slice of the Boeing 797’s market will be direct trans-Atlantic routes between the US and Europe: a corridor which low-cost airlines are seeking to dominate through the combination of cheap fares and relatively short travel times (by Australian standards, anyway).
The 797 “could be the airplane that creates the next phase of growth for the low-cost carriers” adds Air Lease exec John Plueger.
However, stung by the soaring costs and extensive delays in creating the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing is understandably wary of another ‘moonshot’ project such as the 797. Bank of America / Merrill Lynch predicts total development costs will range from US$10 billion to US$15 billion.
And Air Lease chief Udvar-Hazy remains to be convinced that Boeing has nailed the balance of price, performance and production costs.
“Boeing has to really wrestle with that issue… the cost of developing and manufacturing the airplane at a price that gives the airlines value, I don’t think that equation has been solved.”
Airbus opts for evolution, not revolution
Arch-rival Airbus has chosen the safer and less expensive path of improving its existing catalogue through NEO or ‘new engine option’ models of the A320 and A330 series.
These combine efficient new engines with tweaks in aerodynamics, engineering and cabin design to lower the operating cost while increase the passenger count.
However, United Airlines has already examined Boeing’s paper plan and likes what it sees.
“What we’ve seen so far is very, very interesting to us,” United chief financial officer Andrew Levy told Bloomberg. “We certainly hope Boeing launches the airplane. We think there is a need for it.”