Paris Air Show: Airbus, Boeing jockey in midcapacity jet market

PARIS AIR SHOW – Airbus’ unveiling Monday of the design for an “extra” long-range version of its A321 jet sets the stage for a chess match of sorts with rival Boeing.

“I think Airbus is trying to get the 757 market,” said Stuart Hatcher of the United Kingdom aviation consultancy IBA Group, referring to the single-aisle jet that Boeing stopped producing in 2004.

With a range of 8,700 kilometers, Airbus is touting the A321XLR, or extra-long range, jet as the solution for airlines that want to fly midcapacity aircraft on long-distance routes such as between Europe and the United States.

Hatcher said this is the same market Boeing is looking to capture with its planned NMA, or new midsize aircraft, a potential replacement for the 757, versions of which carried 200 to 228 passengers. With a planned capacity of 220 to 290 passengers, the NMA will target the “distinct market that is above the 737 and below the 787,” a Boeing spokesman told me Tuesday. At a planned range of around 9,000 km, it would also directly compete with the XLR.

But with the 737 MAX still grounded worldwide after two crashes and the deaths of 346 people, the NMA is taking a back seat. Boeing won’t make a decision on whether to move forward with the aircraft until later this year, the spokesman says, and right now the “focus is on returning the 737 MAX to service.”

“Our overall timeline, broad timeline for that program has not changed,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said of the NMA at a May 29 investors conference in New York, according to a recording of the event. “We still see it as a 2025 entry-into-service kind of airplane.”

Boeing is reportedly leaning toward producing a larger NMA variant first with 275 seats, but the spokesman declined to comment on that possibility because the company is still “doing as much early work as possible to define the NMA before making a decision on whether to launch it or not.”

Hatcher said he doesn’t expect Boeing to announce plans for the NMA before the company’s September board meeting, and that any announcement would in his view be tied to the status of the MAX.

“If the MAX is up and running and flying again, I think it’s a done deal,” Hatcher said. “But from their perspective, of course, nothing can go wrong with that aircraft anymore.”

And although the A321XLR seems off to a promising start, with Airbus announcing 55 orders as of Tuesday, Hatcher said the planned 2023 launch data is far enough away that “anything could happen.”

The Boeing NMA is “specifically built for that market and it will be the most efficient one,” he said.

Paris Air Show: Airbus, Boeing jockey in midcapacity jet market