Boeing’s talking with airlines about a ‘797’, and they like what they hear

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Major players in the world of airplane finance said this week that Boeing seems keen to go ahead with a new jet sized between the largest single-aisle 737 and the smallest twin-aisle 787, and capable of carrying more than 200 passengers.

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. – “Call it a 797,” said Steven Udvar-Hazy. “That’s what it’s going to be.”

Thanks to aviation-industry market guru Udvar-Hazy, chairman of Air Lease Corp., we can now dispense with the varied dreadful designations Boeing dredged up for its next all-new jet, from the MOM airplane (Middle of the Market) to the NMA (variously translated as New Mid-sized Airplane to New Market Airplane).

Forget it. Boeing is talking to airlines about its concept for the 797.

At ISTAT, the annual conference of the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading this week in San Diego, major players in the world of airplane finance indicated that Boeing is keen to go ahead with such a plane.

Sized between the largest single-aisle 737 and the smallest twin-aisle 787 Dreamliner, it’s an idea Boeing broached publicly at the 2015 Paris Air Show.

Such a plane wouldn’t enter service until 2025, but Boeing may launch it as early as next year.

While it was heavily discussed at last year’s ISTAT conference in Phoenix, Ariz., this year, Boeing chose to focus its presentation on the MAX 10, a new variant of the 737 MAX family, and left it to airlines and lessors to discuss 797 details.

The concept Boeing currently favors, airline executives said, is a twin-aisle jet that can carry more than 200 passengers with a medium range of about 5,200 miles.

At an ISTAT panel discussion, John Kirby, vice president of capacity planning at Alaska Airlines, expressed potential interest in buying such a plane.

Daniel Pietrzak, managing director of fleet transactions at Delta Air Lines, said it could be an ideal plane for transAtlantic routes.

And Andrew Levy, executive vice president and chief financial officer at United Airlines, said his company is looking for a plane that can fly from its Newark hub deep into Europe, say to Berlin. He said Boeing’s concept has “a lot of merit.”

Airbus sales chief John Leahy, also presenting at ISTAT, tried to knock the concept down by reminding the audience that smaller, lighter twin-aisles jets have failed before. He cited the Airbus A310 and the Boeing 767-200, saying that the drag and weight of those wide, twin-aisle planes produced worse per-seat economics than long single-aisle planes.

“Light twins will never compete with a stretched single-aisle,” Leahy declared, championing his own transAtlantic candidate, the single-aisle A321neo.

But John Plueger, chief executive of Air Lease Corp., said the aviation market has dramatically shifted since the days of the 767-200, with the rise of low-cost carriers that now are venturing into long haul routes.

The 797, he said, “could be the airplane that creates the next phase of growth for the low-cost carriers.”

Plueger, who along with Udvar-Hazy consults closely with Boeing on new airplane concepts, said Boeing executives are projecting a market for 5,000 of these airplanes.

“I get the sense within Boeing Commercial that they want to launch,” Plueger said.

Udvar-Hazy said the key to going forward will be development of a suitable engine with 40,000 to 45,000 pounds of thrust. He said he expects Boeing to offer a choice of two engines, likely one from GE and another potentially from a Pratt & Whitney/Rolls-Royce joint venture.

If Boeing does go ahead with this particular 797 concept, he said, he expects Airbus to respond not with an all-new airplane of its own but with a modification of its current airplanes.

“By the time this comes out, there’ll be thousands of A321s” in service, Udvar-Hazy said. “Why would Airbus just abandon that? I think the manufacturers will address the market from different directions.”

He expects Airbus to either fine-tune the wing of the A321 to improve its performance or to lighten the twin-aisle A330, reducing the maximum takeoff weight and engine thrust to suit the 797 missions.

Neither of those options would produce a jet as good as a clean-sheet concept, but both would be dramatically cheaper and so Airbus could expect to compete with lower pricing.

That would make cost the decisive factor for Boeing. It has to be able to manufacture the jet at a cost that allows the price airlines want to pay: around $70 or $80 million.

That’s a tall order for a twin aisle jet. If an airline today paid $100 million for the smallest 787 Dreamliner, it would be a steal.

As he always does when talking to Seattle-based reporters, Udvar-Hazy didn’t miss the chance to say that this again brings up the question of where Boeing will choose to build the plane.

“Do you build it in unionized Washington state, or somewhere else, like Texas or South Carolina?” Udvar-Hazy asked. He didn’t answer the question, though he brings it up so much one has to suspect he has a strong feeling on the matter – and doubts about Seattle.

That decision will be Boeing’s and the man who’ll make the business case to the board in Chicago is new Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Kevin McAlister.

Given the super-expensive and much-delayed development of Boeing’s last all-new airplane, the 787 Dreamliner, McAlister will have to lay out for the board every technological and financial implication as well as the market potential.

“I spent the weekend with him,” said Udvar-Hazy. “I know he’s focused on it.”