LONDON – The last few years for Boeing have not exactly been an easy ride, especially with its well-known 737 MAX crisis.
With Airbus able to catch up on the lost ground with the A321neoLR and XLR variants, this article looks into how the obese and asthmatic structure within the company disabled the aerospace giant’s ability to quickly move and pounce on new markets with the likes of the New Mid-Market Aircraft (NMA).
Licking Away The Wounds of the MAX
The 737 MAX crisis obviously produced a lot of delays to future projects that Boeing wanted to take part in, and licking away the wounds of a $2.5 billion federal charge by the United States Department of Justice will not change things that easily (U.S DoJ, 2021).
A lot of focus has been placed on the MAX, more recently in the last few months as the manufacturer aimed to bring the aircraft back into service and solve any liabilities that came with it.
Such examples consist of the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Steve Dickson back in September last year going to considerable lengths by saying “that he felt “comfortable” on board a Boeing 737 MAX test flight” (Field, 2020).
This of course proved to be a considerable boost of confidence for the aircraft once again, especially with Boeing holding around “US$6bn in customer liabilities due to ongoing events” (Field, 2020a).
By November, “the US Senate Commerce Committee” voted in favour of there being “tightened oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) amid the grounding” of the jet (Field, 2020b).
This ultimately proved to be good news for Boeing as it meant the aircraft would go through more rigorous channels, as opposed to previous channels explored.
So whilst the wounds had been licked away, aerospace analysts had stated that Boeing needed to “move forward with developing a mid-market aircraft”, with the requirement of the jet being “smaller than the concept Boeing had previously been studying” (Hemmerdinger, 2020).
Problems with Boeing’s NMA
One fundamental problem of the NMA is its existence. As reported by The Air Current back in 2019, Boeing had been “briefing a small handful of U.S, European and leasing customers on an all-new aircraft – dubbed the Future Small Airplane (FSA)” (Ostrower, 2019).
Such an aircraft was expected to seat 180 to 210 people, which is larger than the 737 MAX 8 at 162 passengers in a two-class configuration (ibid).
By January 2020, the manufacturing giant had collapsed the NMA and the FSA into one, with CEO Dave Calhoun stating: “I want to make sure I understand everything about the wide body/narrow body world” (Ostrower, 2020).
It was at this point that questions into whether Boeing fully understood the current conditions of the market or not, with Calhoun sending the project back to the drawing board.
And investors had begun to notice this. Members at Park Aerospace Corp instigated a significant hit towards Boeing over the project, stating that there is more excitement about Airbus’ A321XLR program and that “Boeing… don’t really have an answer for this plane” (The Motley Fool, 2021).
With Calhoun’s firm starting “fresh with a new piece of paper” and looking to something different beyond the “small, twin-aisle unit” with the “economics of a narrowbody”, it is Boeing’s method of pressing the factory reset button, taking that step back to figure out how it can now proceed to success (Singh, 2020).
That being said, it does appear that Boeing is reentering that element of the market, especially with AviationWeek (2021) reporting that “Boeing is taking the first tentative steps towards an all-new airliner designed to compete with the Airbus A321XLR and, despite the current cost and market headwinds, has begun sounding out suppliers for provisional requests for information.” The new aircraft is dubbed -5X.
Successes of the A321neoLR/XLR
The A321LR variant of the aircraft produced by Airbus is already in service and has been making considerable strides over the last few years.
Back in April 2018, the aircraft was able to underscore “its impressive range with a record-breaking flight from Mahe in the Seychelles islands to Toulouse, France – covering a total distance of 4,750 nautical miles in 11 hours” (Airbus, 2018).
Offering “the longest range of any single-aisle jetliner”, it immediately opened up the potential for airlines to bring down its operating costs whilst relatively carrying the same output (ibid).
With the LR setting a benchmark for the XLR, it encouraged the likes of United Airlines ordering 50 units of the Xtra Long Range type, offering the potential of a “final nail in the coffin for Boeing’s proposed NMA” (Levine-Weinberg, 2019).
That same year, Frontier Airlines “had inked a deal to buy the newest version” of the jet, offering the perspective that even if the likes of Frontier don’t buy Boeing, there was always the chance, and that chance had disappeared very quickly (Aratani, 2020).
That, therefore, meant Airbus was correct to state back in February 2020 that it expected the “A321XLR to ‘safely exceed’ 1,000 orders” due to such “strong sales” underlining the “new variant’s popularity” (Kingsley-Jones, 2020).
By the end of last year, the A321XLR had already secured 450 orders, being very halfway to Airbus’ expectations of 1,000 orders and beyond (Hardiman, 2020).
A final point to make is that even if Boeing is able to push ahead with this project, it will be hard to catch up in this battle as “Airbus isn’t slowing down development on its A321XLR despite the Coronavirus’ impact on the aviation industry” (Pallini, 2020).
With the XLR due to enter service in 2023, this will of course be very problematic for Boeing as being able to develop an aircraft in that short of a time will not be possible. But of course, there is the chance of this working well in Boeing’s favour.
Can Boeing Recover the Project?
This question slightly relates again to the 737 MAX crisis, especially when the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee “ruled that the cultures of Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were to blame for the 737 MAX disasters”, as a change in approach could make things more positive (Field, 2020c).
Regardless of how delayed the new aircraft would be, if more of a safety-based approach was taken when developing the aircraft, including more innovative features to complement the jet, then consumer confidence of the jet would sky-rocket, especially as the manufacturer aims to use this decade to forget about the crisis.
This is further backed up with the point pertinent to Calhoun wanting to “start again with a clean slate” (Singh, 2020a). With new management at the wheel, different ideas towards the future of the company will be pushed forward and generate a new identity within the company.
However, it may be too late for Boeing, especially with the fast development plans coming from the Airbus corner of the ring.
Announced in December 2020, Airbus has already “solicited engine ideas for a narrow-body jetliner in development, drawing a proposal for a new geared design from General Electric” (Executive Traveller, 2020).
It remains clear that Airbus is therefore thinking a few more airframes ahead than the Boeing, and we are not just talking about the backlog.
Such inaction from Boeing, although not purposefully, has placed the aerospace giant into a particular predicament on how it aims to succeed and thrive going into the future.
As Ted Reed from Forbes mentions, “Can Boeing save itself?”, because the big question ultimately surrounds around whether the manufacturer became a “permanent No. 2 to Airbus” (Reed, 2020).
Looking to the backlog, Airbus has obviously delivered more than Boeing as the MAX was a key element of its assets that weren’t able to initiate deliveries. However, there is always the chance that Boeing may be able to challenge the 556 aircraft delivered in 2020, especially as it aims to get the MAX production back underway properly (Gates, 2021).
It ultimately remains that Boeing have to use 2021 as a year of shake-ups, clever thinking as well as have a year full of quick but solid and safe decisions in order to bring itself back from what has been a dark decade for the manufacturer.
- U.S DoJ (2021), Boeing Charged with 737 MAX Fraud Conspiracy and Agrees to Pay over $2.5 billion, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/boeing-charged-737-max-fraud-conspiracy-and-agrees-pay-over-25-billion [Last Accessed 8th January 2021]
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