Its coming – the Boeing NMA ‘797-X’ has huge implications, and for Airbus too.

The last 787-9 (destined for ANA) leaves Everett plant at 2200hrs yesterday – all build has been transferred to Charleston. The JAL behind is in for reworking.

NMA is on the way…

Boeing isn’t exactly flush with civil airliner money right now, but don’t let that fool you. It’ defence business is roaring and it notched up another big success this last week with the first flight of the Loyal Wingman drone in Australia, which stands to be a huge force multiplier for air forces who buy into it.

The New Mid-Market Aircraft, dubbed 797-X by many, has already been designed but never publicised once. Airlines were shown the concept and many proved to be highly accepting of it, even the notoriously fickle and demanding Qatari’s, who expressed considerable surprise at it meeting their needs.

Yet that wasn’t enough to overcome the crumbling edifice of Boeing’s reputation following the MAX saga and the 787 quality issues, never mind the rest of its behind the scenes failures that, once topped off with Covid sent into something of a fiscal and moral tailspin.

One impression of a potential NMA ‘797-X’

Yet the NMA isn’t dead. Indeed having not so long ago said it pretty much was, they’re now saying it very much isn’t. Boeing has been in advanced talks with several key suppliers about using designs and work from the first NMA to bring production on line with a very aggressive timetable. A timetable that will see first flight within 2023-24 and production aircraft delivered by 2025-26.

The urgency is all about the Airbus A321 family which is so far ahead in order numbers Boeing simply has no competition. Their own failure to to do something about recognising the end of life of the 757-200 and finding a replacement has really hit home. Indeed to many, it was one of the most appalling business decisions they ever made, but the 787 proved complex, and was five years late, the 737 was so desperate for updates they went with the MAX and the 747-8i was a marketing and sales failure because the 787 took up everyone’s time. Then they went with the Great White Elephant of the 777-9 which hasn’t even slightly met order expectations and likely never will.

There are though risks even in dealing with the NMA. If they go down this path, new technology fuels like hydrogen – which are the holy grail for aviation because they genuinely are ZERO emission technology – producing only water vapour – will not be on this aircraft. It will potentially be the pinnacle of old aviation tech, maybe the last aircraft ever designed to burn fossil and bio-fuels. Airbus publicised some shocking figures the other day, all of the aircraft they delivered new from 2016-19 will produce around 1.1 billion tons of Co2. Thinks about that for a second. Imagine it as blocks of solid stone as a cubic meter of carbon weighing 1 ton – thats nearly 9,000,000 acres 3ft deep in carbon dioxide.

So for many the idea that Boeing is so desperate to compete it might end up mortgaging its future to do so, by adopting tech that will be outdated in ten years of the aircraft being launched – and thus ceding the future of advanced hydrogen propulsion to Airbus, for up to a decade, seems as short sighted as ever. However its very Boeing, they’re thinking short term profits not long term planning.

Another rendering of a possible NMA

So what will the NMA look like? By all accounts it will be at least 10-20% bigger than than the A321XLR. It will have a range of around 5,000 nautical miles, in effect it will be the very thing they should have done years ago, a real 757 replacement. the one thing it will almost certainly be though, is a widebody.

And that poses grave problems of Airbus in one market – the A330neo. An aircraft that can match the A332 and A321 market, crossover right at that point where Airbus is weakest, stands a chance.

The A330 is selling poorly. It’s not likely to get much better. There are too many of the older versions around and they’re cheap and relatively young, many only halfway through useful lives. Nobody seems enamoured by it and the big airlines have almost completely left it alone. Right now they’re building just two per month.

A330neo isn’t anywhere near as popular as it should be

By the time the NMA is available – say 2025-26, the A330 will be old hat, too big and largely ignored. A slightly smaller aircraft, a sort of halfway house between an A321 and an 787-8, that stands a real chance of making headway and that’s right where Boeing is aiming.

Yet it worries some that Boeing isn’t looking forward to better technology and they wonder about the longevity of the aircraft. Typically a mid range aircraft should last 22 years. The first in-service may be 2026. That puts them out to 2048 for end of life. By then Airbus and the Europeans will have long cracked the hydrogen fuel problem, theoretically they already have, its just about making it a physical reality, and by 2035 that’s what the UK, France, Germany and the EU are demanding from Airbus and the fuel supply industry. And let’s not forget the bailout money they (Airbus and the airlines) took in the billions in the past 12 months was conditional on making it happen.