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Boeing Hints at Clean Sheet 737 Family Replacement

Seattle, WA - After another several turbulent weeks for the Boeing 737 MAX family, Boeing (NYSE: BA) has hinted at a clean-sheet replacement for the historic series of aircraft. While nothing definitive will be confirmed for some time, CEO Dave Calhoun has spoken of the 15-year collaboration with NASA on a futuristic single-aisle plane, which would position similarly in the marketplace as the Boeing 737. The concept projects a 30% boost in efficiency versus the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo families, both the leading models for single-aisle operators.

The Future Single Aisle (FSA) concept is expected to hit the skies in the 2030s, hoping to take a chunk back of the market share that primary competitor Airbus has gained over the past decade. At the same time that Airbus won significant sales percentages over Boeing, state-owned Chinese manufacturer COMAC developed and launched two single-aisle aircraft. This substantially impacts future sales in the dense Chinese travel sector. Boeing and Airbus held a monopoly for years, forcing domestic carriers to purchase large fleets of foreign aircraft.

Why It Makes Sense

The troubles with the Boeing 737 MAX aside, this comes almost a year after Boeing officially abandoned its New Midsize Airplane (NMA) project, or at least until after 2030. It is somewhat unsurprising given the severe complications in delivering Boeing 737 MAX aircraft to customers. The MCAS fiasco shocked the whole world, and then COVID-19 further aggravated certification timelines and delivery schedules. However, the troubles date back to the decision not to replace the Boeing 757 and 767, instead hoping for the larger Boeing 737 families to fill the void.

This has resulted in Airbus dominating market share over the past decade or so, even establishing a monopoly for transatlantic flights on single-aisle aircraft. Before the pandemic, Norwegian Air was the only carrier to fly a Boeing 737 MAX 8 on a commercial flight over the Atlantic, serving a handful of cities from New York Stewart International Airport. Since then, Airbus has taken all that market share from Boeing (United has since started Newark-Ponta Delgada service with Boeing 737 MAX 8s). Airbus' dominance can largely be attributed to improved variants of its Airbus A321neo family - the Airbus A321LR and Airbus A321XLR, respectively.

Following the announcement, several all-Boeing operators, like Icelandair, have announced orders for Airbus A321LR/XLR to replace aging Boeing 757 fleets. The production line for the Boeing 757 was halted in 2004, meaning even some of the latest-built airframes are reaching the end of their useful lives. Operators, like United, have ordered Airbus A321XLR aircraft yet express continued interest in a Boeing 757 replacement. The Airbus A321neo family does get the job done but with not nearly as much of the maximum payload.

A United Boeing 757-200 rotates out of Newark for a flight overseas.

It should be noted that Boeing had previously explored clean-sheet replacing the Boeing 737 Next Generation family before eventually settling on the MAX. This may be hard to believe, but it was the correct business decision. The most influential factor in future aircraft orders is integration costs, and Airbus has already announced a seamless transition with its Airbus A320neo series. Boeing needed to match this offering to compete dutifully.

Maintaining the same type rating is crucial to keeping training costs at a minimum and allows flight crews to be changed interchangeably. On routes that serve old and new generations of Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft, planes can be changed interchangeably without swapping crews. The Boeing 737 MAX was the most marketable conclusion by far - the issue seems to be both the decision-making and execution since.

The mismanagement, failed expectations, and, perhaps most significantly, the impact on airlines' bottom lines have frustrated even the longest-standing Boeing 737 customers. You may recall that both Southwest Airlines and Ryanair, representing a present-day fleet of nearly 1,100 Boeing 737s, explored the Airbus A220 - a previously unfathomable concept. Whether these efforts were legitimate is up for interpretation (I believe it was simply a shot at Boeing), but the point remains that customers are reaching wits' end.

Potentially falling out of reach in each segment of narrowbody flying, representing the most significant percentage of the airline's network development, it feels as if Boeing has no choice but to start fresh, but what it will look like remains to be seen and is a captivating thought. Odds are, more and more, that it will not look like anything we have seen before.

Why Dave is Pissed

R.I.P. Boeing 797. I got robbed. I guess there is still technically hope for this concept to be realized. However, as technology progresses by the day, the odds continue to dwindle - it will likely look or feel like nothing I had hoped. I have long said that the perfect Boeing 757/767 replacement would start with a 757-like body and stick Dreamliner wings on it. Looking at the below (an officially released concept design in 2018), clearly I should have worked for Boeing.

What Does This Mean?

Well, if you are loosely interested in aviation, not much. However, if you are like me and highly intrigued by the future of commercial aircraft, this is a significant little tidbit. There is so much innovation being invested into the next generation of air travel, but it is so unpredictable to know what will land (no pun intended...okay, maybe a little). This interest is not entirely enthusiastic, as I am a fan of the "loud and proud" generation of aircraft. I fondly remember the classic Boeing 737-200s rocking my house on climb-out, and it will be difficult for me to accept the "new future."

The 2030s are shaping up to be the most significant technological revolution in man's feat of flight in our brief history. Remember, these aircraft are projected to take to the skies in the same timeframe as many eVTOL projects. This could mean that every time we look up, it will finally resemble an episode of The Jetsons, especially in major markets like New York City and London. Of course, this is all speculation, as there is not even a projected image available to the public yet. But, it leaves one to wonder what lies ahead.

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