By Scott Hamilton
Sept. 2, 2020, © Leeham News: Boeing is considering production changes to the slow-selling 787-8 to lower costs and boost sales.
The effort comes at a time when global passenger traffic is at record lows and recovery of international traffic is forecast to take four or five years.
As airline traffic recovers, carriers appear to be favoring smaller aircraft in restarting suspended routes.
In recent years, Boeing discouraged sales of the 787-8 because it is a low margin airplane with high production costs. This is a legacy of the program and development difficulties from 2004-2011, when it finally entered service.
The 787-9 and 787-10 are high margin aircraft Boeing counted on to reduce the billions of dollars in deferred production and tooling costs. At one time, this exceeded $32bn.
The early program difficulties resulted in the production and parts of the -8 to be substantially different than the -9/10, which have 95% commonality. The -8 was only 30% common.
In 2018, Boeing changed the -8’s tail to be virtually identical to the -9/10. The change boosted commonality to about 40%, LNA was told at the time.
Boeing this week declined to discuss the changes under consideration to the -8. But LNA’s Bjorn Fehrm, an aerospace engineer, pointed to areas that seem probable.
The key is to get as many parts of the 787-8 to be common with the 787-9 and -10 as possible. During 2019 only six 787-8s were built against 122 787-9/-10. The economics of building six parts per year versus 122 makes the 787-8 a low margin product.
Now that the priorities of the airlines, post-COVID, will move to smaller models, Boeing looks to revise the build standard of the 787-8 to share as many parts as possible with the larger models. A lot can be shared as the fundamental difference between the models is the length of a few fuselage sections.
Why hasn’t this been done already? With a production of a 787-8 every two months, the investment of revising the thousands of documents and procedures to bring the 787-8 up to the -9/-10 build standard wasn’t a wise investment. The post-COVID market changes this.
As outlined in a previous Heard On The Ramp story, several second-hand 787-8s are coming on the market as a result of COVID-19 induced bankruptcies and fleet restructurings. Whether airlines are willing to take those aircraft when traffic recovers will be an indication of interest in the smallest Dreamliner variant.
LNA understands that some enhancements to passenger experience are also being considered.
The changes under consideration are not intended to be a substitute for the now-suspended New Midmarket Airplane, or NMA, LNA learned.
From time to time, some suggested that Boeing should use the 787-8, or resurrect the 787-3—a cropped wing version of the 787-8—to fill the middle of the market for which the NMA was conceived.
LNA is told this is not the case. The changes aren’t intended to create a “787-8 NMA” and there won’t be a resurrection of the 787-3, which had a different wing. The 787-3 was ordered by launch customer ANA, but Boeing dropped it as the cropped wing proved inefficient following further studies.
LNA’s technical analysis also demonstrates the 787-8 makes a poor middle of the market airplane.
The 787-8 is a nine abreast dual aisle with a 56m long fuselage and 60m wingspan. Its empty weight is 120t and the maximum take-off weight is 228t. In US domestic two class seating, it carries 305 passengers—far more than the smaller NMA-6 at 225 passengers or even the larger NMA-7 at 265 passengers.
The NMA-7 is a seven abreast Y dual aisle airplane. It’s shorter, has a smaller wingspan and significantly lighter. The 788 is over 50% heavier as it’s over 50% more aircraft. As a Middle-Of-the Market competitor to the Airbus A321XLR, the 787-8 consumes substantially more fuel on a per seat mile basis.
Bjorn Fehrm and Vincent Valery contributed to this article.