United Airlines has taken a close look at an all-new jetliner that Boeing Co engineers are developing for trans-Atlantic flying and said it likes what it sees.
“What we’ve seen so far is very, very interesting to us,” United chief financial officer Andrew Levy said in an interview on Tuesday. “We certainly hope Boeing launches the airplane. We think there is a need for it.”
An endorsement from United, a large Boeing customer, would go a long way toward making the business case for so-called middle-of-market jetliners.
Boeing has honed its design to seat between 225 and 260 passengers, while working to bring production costs in line with prices that airlines are willing to pay.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a decision to offer by this year,” Air Lease Corp chief executive officer and cofounder John Plueger said of the first step in Boeing’s process to formally introduce a new jetliner. “That might be a bit early, a bit aggressive, but that would not surprise me.”
United had been among the skeptics of the jets that Boeing has spent years developing to fill the gap in its product lineup between the largest of the narrow-body 737 models and the smallest 787 Dreamliners.
While Boeing is designing a twin-aisle aircraft with the range to fly from London to New York, budget carriers are shifting more mid-range flying to relatively inexpensive narrow-body jets such as Airbus Group SE’s A321neo.
After delving deeper into the Boeing design, “we’re convinced, we get it. We understand the economics,” Levy said in an interview at the ISTAT annual conference in San Diego, California. “We thought a twin made no sense, but we walked through it and had our questions answered. From what we’ve seen, we like it, but it’s a paper airplane. Hopefully they’ll launch it.”
Timing and price are two of the critical elements that Boeing must consider in its high-stakes chess match with Airbus for market dominance. Billions of dollars of investment are at stake, and the payoff can be thwarted by factors ranging from cheap oil to supplier stumbles. Boeing has been planning its new family of mid-range aircraft, while Airbus has been marketing upgrades of existing jetliners: the A321, its largest narrow-body, and A330 wide-body jets.
Boeing’s jet, which would probably be known as the 797, might begin flying in 2025, said Steven Udvar-Hazy, who cofounded Air Lease and is influential in shaping product strategy for Boeing and Airbus.
The engine technology and breakthrough design of the new aircraft would be critical since it might fly through 2060, he said.
Udvar-Hazy said he is not convinced that Boeing has figured out the magic blend of price, performance and production costs that would make the 797 a bestseller.
“Boeing has to really wrestle with that issue,” he told reporters. “As we sit here today, the cost of developing and manufacturing the airplane at a price that gives the airlines value — I don’t think that equation has been solved.”
That is the most difficult task Boeing has, especially after what happened with the 787, when they “grossly underestimated the R&D [research and development],” Udvar-Hazy said in reference to the Boeing carbon-composite jet, whose costs are thought to have ballooned past US$50 billion. “I don’t think Boeing wants to make a mistake, so they are really pinning down what it takes to make that airplane.”
Boeing envisions two models to fill the overlapping market segments served by its out-of-production 757 narrow-body and 767 wide-body jets, which were developed jointly in the late 1970s and early 1980s and share the same cockpit design.
“One will be bigger and fly not quite as far, one will be smaller and fly farther,” Boeing marketing vice president Randy Tinseth said in an interview.
“To some extent you address the single-aisle market, to some extent you address the wide-body market and to some extent you are stimulating growth where no one has been before and that has been a fascinating part of the whole project,” Tinseth said.
Airbus could counter by improving the wing design of the single-aisle A321neo to yield another 2 to 3 percent in fuel savings, or undercutting Boeing on price with a cheaper, lighter version of the A330neo, Udvar-Hazy said.
The European planemaker would not need to consider an all-new aircraft unless the Boeing plane proves to be a sales smash, he said.
United Continental Holdings Inc will eventually need to replace the 128 Boeing 757 and 767 jetliners in its fleet and has studied the Airbus A321neo as a possible substitute for the aging narrow-body, particularly on flights from the eastern US to Europe, Levy said.
“The 767 replacement that is available now is bigger than we’d like,” he said. “The 757 replacement that is available now is the A321, which is a great airplane. It can do 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of what we’d like it to do, but the other 5 to 10 percent is really critical.”
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