While Boeing has gone back to the drawing board with its long-promised mid-sized aircraft, what takes shape on that clean sheet of paper could both take its cues from, and target, the Airbus A321XLR.
In gestation since 2015, Boeing's next-generation jet – invariably known as the NMA (New Midsize Airplane) or more speculatively as the Boeing 797 – was taking shape as a twin-aisle jet with an advanced 787-inspired composite structure.
Two variants were slated to launch around the middle of the 2020s: the 6X (aka 797-6) with 220 passengers in a two-class layout, and 7X (797-7) with 270 passengers in a similar business/economy configuration.
The Boeing 797 was intended to address a gap between single-aisle workhorse jets like the 737 MAX and long-haul wide-body jets like the 787, as well as being a replacement for the older Boeing 757 and 767 models still being flown by many airlines today.
Rebooting the NMA
However, newly-minted Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun iced the NMA project in January this year, saying that "since the first clean sheet of paper was taken to it, things have changed a bit... the competitive playing field is a little different. We’re going to start with a clean sheet of paper again; I’m looking forward to that."
This rethink may reframe the Boeing 797 as a more direct competitor to the single-aisle Airbus A321XLR, due in 2023 with around 200 passengers and a longer range than the proposed Boeing 797: 4,700 nautical miles, compared to 4,200-4,500nm for the NMA twins.
“We are learning what the (A321) XLR is doing, or not," Boeing Commercial Senior Vice President Sales and Marketing Ihssane Mounir told Aviation Week earlier this month during the Singapore Airshow. "That also gives you a good idea of what the market may want."
"With NMA we never crossed the line with customers in terms of 'this is perfect for me'", Mounir admitted. "It is frankly something we looked at two years ago and when you look at the market today you have to re-address if it still makes sense to have exactly this concept."
Trimming the number of passengers on the NMA while extending its range – and potentially going back to a single-aisle layout – would bring the jet closer to the 737 MAX family.
The Boeing 797's original promise
Boeing's NMA 2.0 project comes as Qantas prepares to map out the future shape of its domestic and medium-range international fleet, for which the original NMA was shaping up as a solid contender.
“It's a lighter aircraft than some of the wide-body, twin-aisles that we have today,” Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce noted some two years back, at the airline's half-yearly financial results for 2018.
“It has a range that’s designed to fly transcontinental and maybe into South-East Asia so it’s not over-spec'd for the domestic operation."
And with a 25-50% higher headcount than the 174 passengers of airline's current Boeing 737 workhorses, there was also scope for it to take on the popular 'triangle routes' from Sydney to Melbourne and Brisbane.
“We’re now at the cap of 80 movements an hour (in Sydney) for four or five hours every day already," Joyce said. "By 2026, when this aircraft is proposed to be produced, the airport will probably completely full by then. So the way to grow will be bigger and bigger gauge aircraft," with the added appeal of the Boeing 797 being able to do its 'turn-around' from inbound to outbound flights as fast as the Boeing 737.
"We want a competitive dynamic to make a decision on what the medium- to a long-term replacement for the domestic Qantas fleet is and if Boeing decides to produce this aircraft, we’ll have alternatives and very competitive alternatives and that would be very exciting for us."
Qantas opts for the A321XLR
However, if the new NMA cleaves closer to the A321XLR, it could remove Boeing from the board, given that Qantas has already signed up as a launch customer for the Airbus A321XLR, with up to 36 jets due for delivery from mid-2024.
While the order was officially placed by the Qantas Group, which encompasses current A321 stalwart Jetstar, group CEO Alan Joyce has left the door open to the A321XLRs joining the red-tailed Airbus A330 fleet for flights into Asia.
"It can fly routes like Cairns-Tokyo or Melbourne-Singapore, which existing narrow-bodies can’t, and that changes the economics of lots of potential routes into Asia to make them not just physically possible but financially attractive," Joyce said after signing on the dotted line.
“We’ll take a decision closer to the time about which parts of the Group will use these aircraft, but there is plenty of potential across Qantas and Jetstar."
Whatever form the NMA 2.0 ends up taking, the design reboot means it's now not likely to leave the hangar until close to the end of the decade.