Oct. 12, 2016, © Leeham Co.: It’s rare when Airbus and Boeing agree on product strategy, but officials of the two companies seemed in almost perfect alignment in separate interviews by LNC last week.
Barry Eccleston, president of Airbus Americas, and Mike Sinnett, VP of Product Strategy for Boeing, each said there is no consensus yet among customers for the Middle of the Market airplane (MOMA), also known as the New Mid-range Airplane (NMA) at Boeing.
Eccleston was interviewed on the sidelines of the annual Seattle conference organized by the British American Business Council Pacific Northwest. Sinnett was interviewed on the sidelines of the annual Governor’s Conference organized by the Aerospace Futures Alliance, a lobbying group in Washington State.
Boeing arguably faces a more critical position in its product line than Airbus. The 737-900ER/9 represents less than 10% of 737 sales and orders compare poorly against the competing Airbus A321ceo/neo.
Some analysts believe the Boeing 787-8 will go away by about 2020 or 2021 and the MOM aircraft would be a replacement for the 788 as well as the remaining Boeing 767s. Boeing is studying a stretched 737-9 into a MAX 10 to boost 737 sales and compete with the A321’s greater capacity.
Officials said repeatedly they favor selling the 787-9/10 over the 787-8, but deny they will discontinue the 788. Still, sales and delivery data appear to support the thesis that the 787-8 won’t have a future beyond 2020.
Thus, Boeing’s product gap clearly begins with the 737-9 and ends with the 787-9.
Airbus claims the A321neo and its LR long range version cover the lower end of the MOM sector and the A330-200/800 fills the upper end.
The NMA seems to be evolving into a 4,000nm-5,000nm airplane in 2-3-2 coach 767
replacement. Or so it appears.
But Eccleston and Sinnett, in the separate interviews, say this isn’t so, yet.
“If your objective is to replace a 767, there is no single point the airlines are converging on,” Eccleston said. “Is it 4,000 miles? Is it 5,000 miles? Is it single aisle or twin aisle? If you talk to Airline A in the US, he wants a single aisle. He wants twin aisle economics but in a single aisle airplane. If you talk to Airline B, he wants a twin-aisle because he wants to go 5,000 miles and he wants a versatile airplane. If you talk to Airline C, ‘I just want the lowest cost, whatever that is.’
“There is no convergence in the airlines I am talking to. I think the same is [true] in Europe as well. There is no convergence that says ‘this’ is truly the Middle of the Market spec.”
“I would say we’re studying a market space as opposed to replacing a specific airplane,” Sinnett said in his interview. “There are aspects of the market space that look like missions that some 767s have done and there are some aspects of that market space that 757s have done.
“Technologies and configurations allow us to create a configuration that can do some of each of those missions. The hard part will be defining specifically with our customers where the market is and which of all the different needs is most important so we know where to optimize,” Sinnett said.
“I wouldn’t think of it as a 757 replacement or a 767 replacement. It’s really more of a study about that market space and trying to figure out what configuration best meets the market requirements. There are different ways to do it and we’re still in the process of talking to our customers and figure out what they need.
“Then, we have to figure out is that something that hunts.
“We haven ‘t said specifically it’s going to be this configuration or that,” said Sinnett.
While Boeing continues to evaluate what an NMA should be, Eccleston says Airbus is positioned just fine.
“We’re perfectly happy doing what we’re doing right now. The 321LR is finding a lot of market success and a lot of market interest. If you want to replace a 757, the 321LR does exactly the same job. It has the same range and the same number of passengers, but you’re doing it 30% cheaper,” he said.
(Some US airlines disagree, pointing out that in their configuration, the A321LR carriers slightly fewer passengers than the 757.)
“In that circumstance, we’re very happy with the success the 321LR is achieving. There is still a lot more we can do with the single-aisle airplane,” Eccleston said.
If there is one thing the industry has taught us in the last several years, it’s a really good idea to take an existing platform and improve it rather than do a clean sheet airplane.
Although Airbus claims the A330-200/800, and the A330-200 light gross weight Regional version, cover the upper end of the MOM sector, there have only been 10 sales of the -800 since it was launched. A330-200 standard sales have dried up as airlines move to the larger A330-300. The A330-200R sold about 150 two China and to a European carrier, but that’s it.
“I’m not the least bit worried about that because I know what the airlines are talking to us about,” Eccleston said. “When you start talking about a 767 replacement, certainly here in North America, people recognize the A330 is reliable, it’s fuel efficient and it’s cheaper than the 787 and oh, by the way, it has the same payload and range. It’s the closest thing the world has today to the 767 replacement.”
If airlines like the A330 today, he obvious question is what about tomorrow?
“Suppose Boeing or we decide to make a new Middle of the Market airplane. If we could actually agree on what that is, it is probably going to need an engine that is 50,000 lbs thrust. Don’t tell me 45, because the airplane is only going to grow, it’s going to need more thrust. It’s going to need 50 on day one anyway and probably more than that to grow over the life of the program,” said Eccleston.
“How many proven 50,000 lb thrust turbo fan or unducted fan engines are there right now? Do you think there will be by 2025, given the engine business today?
“A 50,000 lb engine with a gear box in the middle of it is a lot of shaft horsepower and a lot of heat. That’s an engineering challenge of a magnitude beyond producing a 30,000 lb engine. I think 2025 is probably a little aggressive to me. Twenty 27 is probably still a little aggressive. Twenty 30 maybe, but by then maybe you have an unducted fan anyway.
“The point is, none of have an engine to build an airplane around even if you could figure out what the airplane is.”
Boeing is studying a stretch of the MAX 9 to support 737 sales and to counter the sales success of the A321neo, which is slightly larger than the MAX 9. Boeing continues to study various iterations and has been talking with customers for the better part of a year about this airplane.
One possibility is to use either the CFM LEAP-1A used on the Airbus A321neo or the LEAP-1C designed for the COMAC C919 in place of the 737’s LEAP-1B. The larger 1A or 1C requires taller landing gear and other changes.
The 1B probably needs more thrust, in the form of a thrust bump on take-off, but an iteration Boeing is looking at uses no thrust bump.
“We’re looking at a couple of things,” Sinnett told LNC. “We haven‘t arrived at a hard configuration yet because we’re still talking to customers. There are versions we can do that’s a stretch. There are versions we can do that don’t require a thrust bump. We’re trying to figure out where the sweet spot is. I think we’re pretty close. We’re not ready to talk about what that is yet. But there are a number of different options. We haven’t figured out if there is going to be a thrust bump or not.”
Eccleston’s view of what the MAX 10 should be is notable.
“If you had asked me back at Farnborough [Air Show], my personal guess as an industry observer is that the MAX 10 would take our LEAP engine with a larger fan and crank up and articulate the landing gear, stretch the airplane and call it the 10-and-a-half, or call it whatever you want to call it,” he said. “To me, that would make the only viable, affordable option that Boeing could have that might approach the 321neo and LR.
“To me, a simple stretch of the MAX 9 with the same engine, that engine is going to be awfully, awfully stretched. It’s already running pretty hot with that small fan. I don’t see that as being attractive to the airlines I’m talking to anyway, to make it a 757 replacement and put it on the Atlantic. I just don’t see it.”
But if necessary, Eccleston said Airbus is ready to respond.
“We have a suite of improvements for the 320, and when the time comes, we’re ready to start bringing those in,” he said.
The market often talks about an “A322,” a slightly stretched A321 with a new wing and larger engines that truly becomes an unrestricted trans-Atlantic aircraft with greater capacity than the 757 in international configuration that includes lie-flat seats.
Airbus COO Customers John Leahy refers to an “A321 Plus,” without detailing what this will be.
Eccleston declined to offer details about the “suite” of options available to Airbus.
The industry may not have to wait long to see what direction will be taken. Observers expect Boeing to decide before the end of this year what the MAX 10 will be and the program will be launched.
Then Airbus can decide what it will do.