We wrote a month ago about Boeing being (again) snookered by Airbus. After winning an 8½ month sales advantage and some 1,000+ bonus sales of its new version A320 planes, before Boeing weakly countered with a tweaked 737, the last few months have been showing signs of Boeing again being beaten by Airbus, this time in the larger single-aisle plane category, formerly serviced by the 757.
A gap has existed between the largest A320 or 737 models and the smallest ‘widebody’ (ie dual aisle) planes. That gap was earlier addressed by Boeing’s 757 (and Airbus had no comparable plane) but the 757 ended production – probably earlier than Boeing would have wished for – back in 2004, at a time when it seemed airlines were focusing either on bigger longer range planes or smaller shorter range planes.
But the gap which the 757 previously filled has re-appeared and grown in prominence, all the more so for not having a plane to address it. The size/performance increases of the latest Airbus A321LR seems destined to fill this product gap, but Boeing is invoking a feeling of deja vu, because to date it has nothing to counter it with except bluster, pretending there isn’t a need for such a plane at all. In saying this, Boeing uses the backward-facing logic that because there aren’t many planes of that nature out there at present, that means there is no need for such planes in the future.
But it seems that Airbus is on to a good thing with its new A321LR, and even if it is a small part of the total universe of plane models needed, it is strategically undesirable not to be able to supply all the needs of your airline customers. Boeing is finding itself more or less forced to confront the issue.
So, when faced with a gap in your model range that you need to fill, what do you do? You come out with a new model to address that gap, don’t you?
But – if you’re Boeing, a company increasingly appearing to be innovation-unfriendly, maybe you don’t do this at all. Instead, why not blow the dust off your production drawings for a plane model that was designed in the 1970s, and based on an original airframe dating back to the 1950s, and restart the production line you closed down over a decade ago!
Although Boeing publicly says there is no need for a 757-replacement, it has reportedly been quietly sounding out as many as 30 different potential customers of such a plane, and ‘well placed sources’ suggest that one of the options it is considering is to revive its 757. Boeing came out with a denial earlier today, and while we agree with Boeing that it would make little sense to revive the 757, we’re not sure that ‘making (little) sense’ is always a factor in what Boeing does, and so we doubt that Boeing’s denial will necessarily be the final word on what happens, because, as best we see, Boeing has no other choice.
If Boeing were to reintroduce the 757, the ‘secret sauce’ that would hopefully make the plane of interest to the market would be in having new engines to power the plane. The interesting reality of aviation and airplane design over the last decade or two is that most of the improvements in what is generically described as airplane performance are the result of better engines, not the result of better airframe designs.
Typical jet engine efficiency has improved by over 65% between 1960 and 2010, and the latest generations of airplane engines are offering continued efficiencies. This creates a ‘virtuous loop’ – a more efficient engine requires less fuel, and because the plane carries a reduced weight of fuel, the engine doesn’t need to burn as much to carry the reduced fuel, and so on. Plus, lower fuel loads can allow for lighter simpler structures (eg in wings) that no longer need to carry fuel within their spaces.
Compare the 65% improvement in efficiency from engines with, for example, about a 3.5% improvement from adding vertical winglets of one form or another at the end of the wings, and the relative importance of new engines compared to other design tweaks becomes even more obvious.
The dismaying reality is that the design for a standard sub-sonic passenger plane with mid-body wing, and engines hung off the wings, has been more or less fully optimized. Apart from some variations in the diameter of the fuselage, and largely immaterial changes to the length of the fuselage, there’s not much difference at all, as can be seen by simply looking at half a dozen random passenger jet models at the next airport you visit.
Yes, using lighter weight materials definitely helps out, as do other ‘beneath the hood’ type improvements in control systems which also lead to lighter weight (although sometimes with some unexpected consequences, like Boeing’s infamous experimentation with Li-ion batteries in the 787). There have certainly also been other minor tweaks to wing and control surface designs.
But the greatest part of the improvements in airplane fuel economy, and much of their maintenance cost issues too, come from advances in engine technology. Most of the airframe changes have been mainly to create new models of planes that can address evolving marketplace ‘sweet spots’ in terms of passenger and freight carrying capacity and flying range, and taking advantage of the evolving engine capabilities and requirements.
So now that Boeing seems to be slowly acknowledging the need for a plane with slightly larger passenger capacity and slightly longer range than offered by any of its 737 family, it might be that the company has decided not to ‘re-invent the wheel’ and design a totally new fuselage and wings, but simply to make some minor tweaks to its existing 757 design and then sling the latest and greatest engines underneath it.
Designing a totally new airplane seems to be costing in the order of an unthinkable $15 billion these days, and possibly as much as twice that in the case of the 787 design/development disaster, to say nothing of taking the better part of a decade from start to finish. So, from Boeing’s point of view, if it can simply reincarnate its 757, it will save more than $10 billion, and more than five years.
As we said before, Boeing has almost no choice here.
The Implications for Us as Passengers?
There are a couple of implications for us, both negative.
The first is that the 757 is ‘too narrow’. When Boeing settled on the fuselage diameter it adopted for its 707 in the mid 1950s, there was some ambiguity as to if it would have five or six across seating, and of course, it settled on six across seating. The same fuselage diameter was copied in the 727, the 737 and the 757 models, and continues to apply even to the new model 737s that are due to enter service late this decade, more than 60 years after it was first specified.
But in the same 60 years, the average American has grown an inch in height and more than 25 lbs in weight. The airline response to this growth in height and weight (and therefore, ‘width’ too) has been to make our seats smaller rather than bigger, and to jam them closer together!
When Airbus developed the design for its A320 series of six-abreast single aisle planes in the early 1980s, it recognized the inadequacy of the diameter of the standard Boeing model, and added an extra 10″ of width (growing the diameter from 11’4″ to 12’2″). That might not sound like a lot, but it is enough for an extra 1.5″ for each passenger, and with an inch more for a wider aisle, too.
When you consider the typical airplane seat width is in the order of 17″, an extra 1.5″ is almost 10% more seat width. More to the point, it makes the difference between ‘too narrow’ and ‘barely wide enough’ and that is a huge difference in overall passenger experience and comfort.
So if Boeing resurrects its 757, it will of course also have the narrow 11’4″ cabin, and the ‘too narrow’ seating. That’s not a good thing. A new plane with a new design would presumably treat us to a few more inches of cabin diameter – although don’t be sure about that – the wider the fuselage, the more drag that is created, and so there is a slight loss of fuel efficiency in a plane with a larger fuselage cross-section.
It will also have all the old specifications for things such as cabin pressure and humidity and soundproofing. The latest planes such as the A350 and A380 and the Boeing 787 have better pressurization, moister air, and quieter cabins than the older designed planes. These comfort improvements really do make a difference, particularly on longer flights.
What Boeing Should Have Done?
The problem Boeing now finds itself confronting might have been one it could have solved if it had made a different decision when considering how to update its 737 in the late 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s.
The airline industry knew, for years if not decades, that the 737 was nearing the end of its design life – in particular, the ever larger diameter engines being developed were getting more and more difficult to fit underneath the 737’s low slung wings. But Boeing decided to keep churning out 737s as long as it could, while delaying the costs of the redesign that sooner or later would be required.
For a long time, there seemed to be a tacit understanding between Airbus and Boeing – both companies were distracted by problems in the development of other new model planes (Airbus had problems with both the A380 and A350, and Boeing was overwhelmed with 787 problems), and so both companies seem to have decided not to upset the competitive balance that existed between the A320 and the 737 and add to their overloads by starting or reacting to a new development project.
Airbus was the first to break that unwritten agreement when it announced its new A320neo series of planes in December 2010, forcing Boeing to either attempt one more update of the 737 or to ‘bite the bullet’ and design an entirely new airframe. Airbus was clever to be the first to break the agreement, because whereas it could reasonably quickly and inexpensively update the A320, the ideal Boeing action – developing a new plane from scratch – would have taken Boeing too long to do in response, which almost forced Boeing into trying to squeeze one more generation of models out of the 737.
Now for the ‘should have’ thing. Boeing should have stopped greedily milking its 737 cash cow, and should have been first to start development on a total ‘clean sheet’ new model of plane. Doing that would have forced Airbus to also respond with a new model plane, and Boeing would have been the first to start development and so would have the time advantage, while Airbus would have been on the back foot.
But, instead, Boeing inexplicably did nothing for 8.5 months, before then announcing a decision that was as underwhelming as it was inevitable. It attempted to breathe new life into the 737, and while its 737MAX series of planes are an acceptable solution for the ever fewer number of fiercely Boeing-loyal airlines out there, the discrepancies between the A320neo and the 737MAX planes have seen Airbus take over much more market share of this market than they’ve ever had before.
If Boeing had decided to completely develop a successor to the 737, it seems possible that it could have designed a plane in several versions (as it always does), with a couple of versions addressing the 737 sweetspots in terms of passenger loads and flying range, and then another version or two for the 757 sweetspot.
The problem now is that Boeing is half correct. There is some market potential for a 757 type plane, but the size of that market is not very large. There is not enough potential to recoup the total development costs of an entire new model (maybe 1000 planes would be sold, and with a $15 billion development cost and Boeing winning half that market, that makes a $30 million R&D amortization part of each plane sold).
Airbus is addressing the small market by simply developing a new tweak/version of its existing A321, with a much lower capital development cost. But Boeing has run out of 737 options, and so seems stuck with two unappealing choices – to do nothing and to cede most of this market to Airbus, or to try and come up with something based on its discontinued 757 platform and hope that the latest and greatest engines, albeit on a very old airframe, will be enough to ‘save the day’.