Boeing sees the future and it doesn’t include jumbo passenger jets. Not its own iconic 747 – but not the Airbus A380 'superjumbo', for that matter.
The US planemaker has dropped the category reserved for four-engine behemoths from its annual forecast for the commercial-aircraft market. Instead, Boeing predicts that airlines will use more efficient twin-engine jets for long-range flights – like its 787 Dreamliner, 777X or the mid-market 797 that’s on the drawing board.
By leaving so-called very large aircraft off its two-decade projection for a US$6.05 trillion jetliner market, Boeing said it was reflecting a market reality: There is little to no chance of reviving sales.
Both the Chicago-based company and Airbus already had pared production of their biggest aircraft as orders dwindled, and Boeing has warned it may end 747 production.
Four engines are two too many
"We don’t see much demand for really big aircraft going forward," Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president for marketing, said at a briefing ahead of the Paris Air Show, which began Monday. “We find it hard to believe that Airbus will deliver the rest of their A380s in backlog."
Airbus still sees a long-term market for the planes although it didn’t log a single A380 sale last year.
The European manufacturer says airlines will need larger jets as passenger traffic doubles and congestion limits the number of flights into megahubs, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. The company projects potential sales of 1,406 of the largest commercial aircraft, valued at US$454 billion through 2037.
Boeing trumpets the 797's 'lighter touch'
As the jumbo era ends at Boeing, the planemaker sees a new market emerging for mid-range airplanes overlapping the largest single-aisle and smallest twin-aisle jets.
“They went big and heavy, we went small and efficient,” said Mike Delaney, Boeing vice president and general manager for airplane development. “We’ll overfly our competitors, put a lighter gauge on things."
The plane Boeing is developing – dubbed the 797 or NMA, for new mid-market airplane – would seat between 220 and 270 travelers and fly about 5,000 nautical miles.
The goal is to spur growth with jetliners that avoid hubs and fly direct to smaller cities on routes that aren’t properly matched to today’s aircraft. Think Washington to Prague, Japan to India, or within China’s “Golden Triangle’’ of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing.
Airlines also could use the new jet on transcontinental flights to replace aging Boeing 757 and 767 jets. Budget carriers could graduate from single-aisle jets to the larger planes for more-popular routes.
Tinseth projects a potential market of 4,000 to 5,000 sales in that segment over 20 years.
Airbus has already made advances in that market with its largest single-aisle plane, the A321neo, and is exploring a stretched version that would hold more than 240 travelers.
While that narrow-body would probably be cheaper than the new Boeing dual-aisle, the US company sees a competitive advantage in a design that lets passengers board and disembark far more quickly.
Single-aisle aircraft like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 will still rule the market, accounting for nearly three-quarters of total sales, according to Boeing’s forecast. The planemaker predicts a need for 29,530 narrow-bodies valued at US$3.18 trillion through 2036.
The next most popular type will be small wide-body aircraft, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A330, accounting for 5,050 deliveries or 12 percent of forecast sales, Boeing predicts.
Sales of very large aircraft will probably be confined to Boeing’s niche-market 747-8 freighter and a handful of jets for VIPs, like the next Air Force One for the US president.
The hump-backed 747 – which in 1970 ushered in a new era of mass long-range travel – eventually will be replaced at the top of the jetliner food chain by Boeing’s 777X. The first delivery for that 400-seat plane is scheduled for 2020.
“The biggest airplane in the market moving forward is going to be the 777X,” Tinseth said.