What happens when you take an existing, reasonably successful aircraft type and just add new engines? Sure, there will be a few minor structural changes and it’ll need taller landing gear because the new engines are larger. But we know that the engines work and we know that the fuselage is ready. Probably wouldn’t even need too much in the way of pilot training from the existing models to pull this off. And it’ll be a much lower risk (and lower cost!) approach than starting from scratch on a clean sheet aircraft design. Right??
If this concept sounds familiar, well, it should. Boeing played this game with the 737NG to 737MAX evolution and Airbus took a similar tack with its A320 family. Even the 747-8 had shades of this approach (though also a new wing). Now, faced with mounting cost challenges and an uncertainty around launching the NMA, Boeing might do the same for its 767 according to a FlightGlobal report.
The idea would be to combine the 767-400 fuselage – a double stretch and a model that did not see early commercial success – with the GEnx engines that power the 787 and 747-8 today. The new plane, being called the 767-X in the initial reporting – would mostly focus on cargo opportunities to start. And the GEnx is significantly more efficient than the engines powering the 767s today. The 767 production line is already in place so getting these planes into service could happen as early as 2025, the previously intimated (and now almost certainly impossible) target for the NMA program.
And, for the most part, the focus appears to be on a freighter option. That market remains steady, at least for now, even as global cargo demand slumps, down 3.9% YoY for August 2019, the 10th consecutive monthly decline and 16th consecutive month where capacity growth outstripped demand, according to IATA.
I remember touring the KC-46 line a few years back with @dominicgates and I leaned over to him and said something to the effect of, ‘Give this thing new engines, punch holes for windows and you’ve got an NMA ready to go.’— Jon Ostrower (@jonostrower) October 10, 2019
There is also potentially a military angle. The KC-46 refueling tanker program could certainly benefit from a more efficient aircraft with higher payload capacity.
But those markets are small potatoes compared to the NMA passenger segment. Yes, the 787 was pitched as a 767 replacement. But it is overengineered for many of the routes the 767s serve today. The 787 is a larger, heavier aircraft. That’s good news for airlines when it comes to delivering on long, thin routes. The 787-8 weighs 35,000 pounds more than a 764; the 787-9 adds another 20,000 pounds on the scale. It also features a significantly larger wing and approximately 40% higher fuel capacity. And the 787-3, the “regional” model for the family, was scrapped. For the NMA segment the 787 is simply too much plane.
A simple swap
Swapping the 767-X into that segment would be relatively easy. It still probably has too many seats if based on the 764 frame rather than the 763, but the overall trip cost savings should somewhat make up for that.
The new engines would deliver double digit fuel efficiency improvements and all of the components are known to work. Not all on the same plane yet, so there is still some effort required, but the engine is a known entity with a solid report card since it entered service. The fuselage is a known entity across the passenger, cargo and military segments. Heck, even MCAS is already integrated on the type (in the KC-46s).
And, as noted above, the production facilities already exist. As a derivative type it will be much faster and easier to bring to market, even if the FAA insisted on a 100% new certification program, which is unlikely.
General Electric would be much, much happier to continue selling the GEnx model that it knows works well. The margins on continuing that line are solid and risk is removed for it as well, not just Boeing. Given the challenges seen with new generation engines and pressing the limits of the engineering and manufacturing capabilities today, perhaps the safe play really is the smart play. The 747-8 backlog is quickly dwindling and the 787 is slowing. Aeroflot just cancelled an order for 22. At the planned production rate of 14/month the company has about 40 months worth of planes to still build. That lines up nicely with a 2025 delivery target for the 767-X, though certainly Boeing will also continue its efforts to sell more 787s.
A PaxEx Win
Sticking with the 767 fuselage would also be a boon to passengers. Unlike the 787 and 777 families where airlines have decided that squeezing the extra seat in each row is still just comfortable enough to justify selling the seats, the 767 family has not seen a push to an extra dense economy class layout. It is possible, but extremely rare.
And if the 767-X relieves the NMA pressure for Boeing then it could also trigger another evolutionary improvement sooner than expected. A clean-sheet small aircraft to replace the 737 could come sooner as resources are shifted away from NMA to the smaller option.
It also comes with trade-offs. The clean sheet NMA would almost certainly be more efficient than the derivative. Among other things, the 767 base model used will not have the carbon fiber weight savings a new design would fly. But it could still see older, less efficient planes removed from service more quickly than a true NMA play would. That incremental improvement is still worth something, just not as much.