As aviation professionals descended into the ‘City of Light’ for the biennial Paris Air Show, much of the buzz was centred on Boeing’s middle of market (MOM) aircraft. John Wojick, senior vice president (SVP) for global sales and marketing at Boeing, confirmed in an interview prior to the air show that the Seattle-based planemaker is indeed moving forward with a study of an all-new commercial jet tentatively earmarked for entry into service in the middle of next decade. This potential MOM aircraft would be sized between current single and twin-aisle offerings and supersede the discontinued Boeing 757 family.
Production for the old 757 ended more than a decade ago. However, it remains somewhat of a darling with US carriers on transcontinental routes and other transatlantic long-haul routes that do not justify the use of a larger aircraft.
The upcoming MOM is expected to be a clean-sheet design; developed from scratch, rather than being a derivative of an existing model. Brand new airplanes are a rare occurrence; so even a rumoured launch several years down the line bring much fanfare. Boeing’s previous jet, the 787 Dreamliner was announced in 2003, and the one prior to that, the 777, was launched in 1990.
Having held high-level talks with airline customers and industry professionals, Wojick’s team has identified the key attributes that are expected from this latest offering from Boeing. “Our customers tell us they want an airplane that is bigger that the 757 and flies farther,” said Wojick. “It would be very efficient operating domestically in the continental U.S. or China, and regionally as well in Southeast Asia and Europe. It could fly from the East Coast of the U.S. to many destinations in Europe.” Wojick stressed that current interest stem from a broad customer base, ranging from established incumbents such as American, Delta and United to smaller low-cost carriers.
This makes a departure for Boeing from its stance from last year, when Boeing chief executive at the time, Jim McNerney, said the company would take no more ‘moonshots’ in the form of an entirely new aircraft. This change of heart is most likely due to mounting pressure from arch rival Airbus. The Toulouse-based planemaker has a MOM offering in the form of the A321LR; a stretched version of its next generation A320neo family with more efficient engines. Due for an entry to service date sometime in 2019, the A321LR has been hailed by Airbus as having the longest range of any narrow-body jet. The aircraft can be configured to seat up to 240 passengers; and with a range of 4,000 nautical miles (nm), the aircraft would be suitable for transatlantic routes, as well as Southeast Asia-Australia ones.
Meanwhile, according to analysts from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, the Boeing MOM offering would seat between 200-270 passengers and have a range of between 3,000-5,000 nautical miles. Based on a patent filing by Boeing (US2010/0200697 A1), it is possible that this MOM aircraft would adopt an oval fuselage instead of a conventional circular one. From an aerodynamic point of view, for a given cabin width, the aircraft would be subjected to less parasitic drag if an oval cross-section fuselage is chosen. In light of this enhanced cabin width, it is expected that the aircraft would be a twin-aisle offering; possibly seating passengers in a 2-3-2 configuration in economy and 1-2-1 or 2-2-2 in premium cabins. It is speculated that the MOM aircraft would have an aluminium body with composite wings, similar to the 777X. The MOM programme is however expected to be not as technologically ambitious as the 787 Dreamliner; on which entry to service suffered delays of more than 3 years due to glitches plaguing its lineup of cutting-edge technologies.
The Bank of America/Merrill Lynch analysis puts the fuel cost per available seat mile (ASM) of the “7M7” at 3.59 US cents on an average of 246 seats, lower than the 737-800’s 3.76 US cents per ASM and 777-300ER’s 4.55 US cents after factoring in a 15% step-change in fuel efficiency.
“We expect the MOM to replace the 993 A300s, A310s, A321s, A330s (short-range routes) and 757s in service today. We estimate that 2,207 widebody aircraft have too much range capability than required for the route they are flying and may provide a down-gauging opportunity. We note that there is overlap from the two calculation methodologies. In our view, if Boeing were to produce a middle of the market aircraft at the same rate of the current production of the Boeing 777 (8.3 per month/100 per year), there may be enough demand for almost 14 years of production,” analysts led by Ronald Epstein wrote.
The 2,207 figure was derived from an assumption of 57% of the 3,453 airport pairs, or 1,977 pairs less than 5,000nm apart would be served by the MOM accommodating 200-270 seats. Yet where such a demand exists does not necessarily mean it is best served by the MOM as suggested, given the load factor, realistic airline use, belly cargo and en-route wind considerations.
The re-engined A330-800neo and A330-900neo, for example, have 252 seats and 310 seats in a standard 2-class configuration, consisting of 36 Business and 216 Economy seats for the former and 36 Business and 274 Economy seats for the latter. Assuming an average of 80% load factor yields 201 seats and 248 seats for the -800neo and -900neo, respectively. Further factoring in airlines typically have less dense configurations than airframers’ standards, it is easy to see which aircraft realistically serves the market well, not least to mention it is problematic to build a route’s business case using a 100% load factor that inevitably leads to demand spill and revenue that is not maximised in accordance to the forward booking curve with dynamic, changing demand forecasted by the origin and destination-based (O&D) revenue management system (RMS).
Airlines’ ability to make full use of the aircraft’s performance on transatlantic routes is further hindered by payload restrictions and en-route winds. On the London Heathrow-Los Angeles route, for instance, which stretches an average of 4,980nm in equivalent still air distance (ESAD) using North Atlantic tracks, existing widebodies already face some considerable payload restrictions. For a 3-class, 210-seat A330-200 with an actual take-off weight (TOW) of 513,409lbs, it would operate at a useful payload inclusive of passengers and cargo at 74,482lbs, or having just 69.1% of the maximum structural payload of 107,755lbs being available, assuming an average headwind of 17 knots. January 2015 also saw the fiercest North Atlantic winds in over 25 months with a British Airways 777-200ER reportedly catching a tailwind in excess of 173 knots on the eastbound New York John F. Kennedy-London Heathrow leg and completing the journey in just under 5 hours.
This illustrates the higher take-off weight offered by the 242-tonne A330s is actually needed, which would dramatically improve the available payloads from the 233-tonne, 2004-vintage ex-Northwest example used above, thus dispelling the notion that the latest available aircraft is overbuilt, once cargo and operational considerations are factored in. In fact, a 3-class, 214-seat 787-8 with an actual take-off weight (TOW) of 500,732lbs flying the aforementioned westbound LHR-LAX journey, would be able to carry 96.9% of its 95,300lbs maximum structural payload, or in a nutshell a full haul of passengers and cargo.
What the oval-shaped MOM targets is niche, new thin long-haul routes one notch below the smallest widebody aircraft, hovering around 187 seats in a realistic 85% load of the 220-seat MOM. The 200-270-seat bracket seems a little too wide and too high. Examples abound in the Southeast Asia-Australia market: Philippine Airlines’ 62% 2015 first-half load factor between the Southeast Asian nation and Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Darwin and Cairns from 1st December onwards with an average of 162 seats filled; Malaysia Airlines’ 71% load factor at 189 seats; Royal Brunei Airlines’ 72% factor at 182 seats, just to name a few.
Intriguingly, these 3 Southeast Asian carriers’ fleet planning process lays bare the fact that Boeing’s “7M7” or “MOM” will be sandwiched between the 2-class 206-seat, 4,000nm A321LR and the A330neo. Philippine Airlines is currently in advanced talks to swap 10 out of 30 outstanding A321neo orders into the A321LR ones; Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB) signed a lease agreement with Air Lease Corporation (ALC) for 4 A350-900s, which includes options for 2 additional A350-900s and 2 A330-900neos; and Royal Brunei operates the 787-8 Dreamliner on its Melbourne route.
Indeed, the purported US$15 billion programme cost for Boeing’s “7M7” translates into a US$81 million per piece, according to Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. This would amount to a 50% premium on top of the A321’s US$54 million full-life base value (FLBV). Whether the MOM offers 50% more value, with cargo space in a 1-abreast LD3 underbelly configuration being suboptimal, than an A321 and the successor A321LR, remains questionable.
“You have to make sure if you do build an airplane like this that it’s not over-engineered and therefore overpriced.” said Aengus Kelly, lessor AerCap Holdings NV chief executive. “It’s not a long-range airplane. It’s not going to be a traditional widebody aircraft, so you can’t charge those prices.”
Asked to comment on this potential Boeing MOM offering, Airbus chief operating officer (COO) customers, John Leahy, had this to say. “In 2015, I wouldn’t worry about what Boeing is doing in 2025. I’m not overly concerned about Boeing’s paper airplane. The aviation publications are littered with Boeing paper tigers.”
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