United throws 797-X under the bus

The 737MAX disaster has thrown Boeing’s entire future mid-small airliner programs future into question.

Unwilling to wait any longer for vague promises and possibilities, United decided its ageing 757 fleet could wait no longer for replacement. It ordered 50 of the only viable current option; the A321XLR, to replace most of its fleet of 74 aircraft – some of which date back to 1989.

United has always been known for its parsimony when it comes to buying new aircraft; it only does so when it has to or when it can get a bargain. It’s not overly interested in the environmental reasons for replacing aircraft. It’s a fiscal bottom line decision every time.

For Boeing this is quite possibly a significant moment. Fifty fewer potential 797-x sales is the difference between a profitable outcome and a break even projection. They simply won’t move forward without a solid prospect of a good return.

Boeing is so tied up trying to push the 777-9 out and getting the MAX back in the air, coupled to serious issues with 737NG’s requiring attention world wide, quality problems at Charleston on the 787-9/10’s, it has no spare capacity to move on the 797-X even if it wanted to.

And the longer it waits, the more the runaway A321 gobbles up orders. It’s running so far ahead of the MAX9/10 they’re not even in the same league.

Rumours that a 767-X could be on the cards aren’t unreasonable. They have a production line, tooling and engines available. Modern interiors and some external aerodynamic tweaks could produce a new version in 3-4 years. And maybe that’s exactly what the 797-X could eventually be.

There are plenty of 767’s that need replacing and a small -200 version might have more customers in today’s market. The downside is it’s a wide body, and that’s a whole different ballgame for airlines in crew and airport facilities, never mind filling it with passengers on thinner long routes the 757 works well on.

And the question over the next single aisle 737 replacement is hanging like the sword of Damocles over the next ten years. Airbus is looking at 2030 for its next single aisle. The MAX doesn’t have a ten year life span left in production terms.

What Boeing does next will define it for a generation. It’s going to take its time. It has to, get it wrong and it’s a strategic failure that can take years to correct. Get MAX fixed, 777-9 airborne and determine what to do with the postponed 777-8.

Then worry about what comes next because 787 doesn’t have ten years left either.

What would you do?