Over the last couple of years, a great deal has been said about Boeing developing an aircraft variously referred to as the 'New Midsize Aircraft' (NMA) or 'Middle of the Market' (MOM) [aircraft] that will fit between current narrowbodies such as the 737 MAX and the widebodied 787. Firm specifications have yet to be revealed and a launch is not expected until into next year, but plenty of details have emerged. The new aircraft is expected to be a twin-aisle design capable of seating between 220 and 270 passengers, carrying them 4,800 to 5,200 miles. A stretched version with slightly less range is also likely. The aircraft is expected to use new-generation 40,000lb turbofan engines with shortened inlet nacelles to reduce noise. Advanced technology and composites similar to those used in the 787 will be employed throughout the structure. Boeing claims the aircraft has the potential to replace aging 757s and 767s still form the backbone of some long-haul fleets. Forecasts suggests a total market in the category of up to 5,000 units, from which Boeing hopes to take 50-60% of the orders. The airframer has been talking to a number of major airlines with US carriers including United seen as frontrunners to place order start to be accepted.
The Boeing NMA (black) will sit between the 737 MAX10 and the 787-8 (Boeing)
Clearly Boeing won't have things all its own way as Airbus will not sit back at let its rival have the market to itself. Indeed, even the US manufacturer's projections anticipate that Europe will win a fair share of the business. However, there are no sounds coming out of Toulouse suggesting that Airbus is working on a similar concept to the MOM. Nevertheless, over the last few weeks details of potential Airbus projects have emerged which point to it using a different approach to meet demand.
Challenging from below
The first A321neoLR has just been handed over to an airline customer, Arkia of Israel. It is an extended-range version of the extremely popular narrowbody which is capable of seating almost 240 passengers. But even this new derivative will struggle to carry that many customers over some of the most lucrative routes - 4,600 miles is as good as it gets, but 4,000 miles is more realistic with a reasonable payload, which is just about adequate for western Europe to the east coast of the USA. Some of the airlines that have signed up will deploy it with a mixed cabin including business class seats which will reduce occupancy to 170-200 and make fuel planning on longer missions a little less critical, but others will want a full complement of paying passengers on board. Airlines currently operating the 757, including Aer Lingus and Air Astana, have already signed up for the A321LR and others will use it as a substitute for widebodies. Meanwhile a few airlines have been asking for even more range.
With the capacity of the A321 already pushing into MOM territory, now it seems that Airbus is studying what has been dubbed the A321XLR which will include another extension of the range envelope by 700 miles to around 5,000 miles. Putting more fuel tanks in the belly will reduce the space available for bags and cargo, but it should enable the aircraft to comfortably operate year round from mid-Europe to North America or haul a full load of tourists from the southern cities of Australia well into Asia. It is reported that the current neo engines and wing will be adequate for the A321XLR, but Airbus is currently evaluating the market and is expected to make a launch decision next year.
Pushing down from above
It has also emerged that Airbus is in the preliminary stages of investigating a lighter weight version of the A330neo, dubbed the A330neo regional. Since its service introduction in 1994 the A330 has become incredibly successful with more than 1,400 produced to date. It has increasingly been given longer legs, enabling the stretched -300 version to fly non-stop from Europe to the west coast of the USA, or from South Africa to London. It is capable of carrying as many as 400 passengers in a high density layout, putting it well above the likely capacity of the MOM. Its ability to carry fuel for a 7,250 miles mission also means the structure is heavy, reducing its suitability for a MOM-style mission. The A330neo regional is likely to have less fuel capacity and a lower maximum take off weight, reducing both operating costs and airport usage fees. As such, the new A330 derivative could challenge the MOM at airlines needing capabilities at the top of the envelope.
The advantage Airbus has with both these models is that they will be fairly quick to bring to the market. Neither are clean-sheet designs, but they could be with customers much more quickly than a MOM which is unlikely to enter service until around 2026. The Airbus designs are unlikely to be able to beat the MOM on cost per available seat mile (CASM) but they will still enable airlines to turn in a profit and in some markets the lesser or greater capacity may be a better solution. And as it will use a lot of existing tooling and technology and come from existing production lines, the Airbus jets are also likely to be cheaper to buy.
Next year will be interesting. Airlines will potentially be able to chose from the Airbus A321XLR, Boeing 797 or the Airbus A330neo regional to fulfill their mid-market needs. Which they go for will depend on a number of factors: fleet commonality will make Airbus an easier option for carriers already using the manufacturer's products, while an ever more urgent need to replace aging early build 757s, 767s and even original A330s might drive customers towards Toulouse. For a few carriers, brand-loyalty may play a part. However, if airlines are prepared to wait the MOM will almost certainly offer even more in terms of efficiency and flexibility.
So keep watching this space. The Aviation Oracle believes that the Airbus A321XLR and the NMA/MOM/797 will almost certainly be launched over the next 12 months, with the A330neo regional more of a maybe for now. The Airbus products will certainly give Boeing pause for thoughts as it continues on a much more complex path. Its new jet is going to have to be very good, because the US manufacturer will be relying on it bridging the gap between the 737 and the 787 for decades to come and also counter the competition from Europe.
Text © The Aviation Oracle