By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
Shadowed by the ongoing 737 Max crisis, Boeing’s leadership heads to Paris for the biannual air show there braced for incessant questions for which it has no clear answers.
The weeklong event begins Monday, and top executives might well feel this is a year to just get through the public presentations and return home quickly to press on with their 737 Max fix. But they also will meet privately at the Boeing chalet overlooking the Le Bourget airfield runways with the airline leaders and suppliers most affected by the grounding of the aircraft and the growing buildup of parked Max planes.
“This will not be a typical Air Show for us by any means,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Kevin McAllister via email. “This is an important time for us to meet with customers, industrial partners and suppliers on our path forward.”
McAllister said he’s going through “the most trying time I have encountered in 30-plus years in this industry.”
“This is a pivotal moment for us,” he added.
Boeing still hopes a consensus will emerge soon among air safety regulators worldwide to allow the Max to fly again — but there’s no firm schedule for that outcome.
At the largest owner of commercial airplanes in the world, leasing giant Aercap, CEO Gus Kelly has 100 Maxs on order. He’s spoken directly to global regulators who, he said, “want to get this airplane back in the air.”
“Maybe the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) goes first,” he said. “But 75 percent of the market is outside the U.S. It would be better for the whole brand if it was a global certification.”
Airlines have had to accept they won’t have the Max during their peak travel season. “The summer’s gone and the airlines have already made contingency plans,” said Kelly.
Meanwhile, more than 140 completed but undelivered Maxs have piled up, parked at crowded spaces in Renton, Seattle’s Boeing Field, Everett’s Paine Field, Spokane and San Antonio.
As the wait for a resolution on the Max stretches on indefinitely, aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group said that in Paris he’s “not expecting anything really of any substance from Boeing, and on the Max, basically just confidence and hope.”
The biggest commercial jet news in Paris will come from rival Airbus, which is expected to launch a new longer-range version of its A321 that, especially with the damage to the Max’s reputation, could extend the European jetmaker’s already substantial lead over Boeing in the single-aisle jet category.
And Mitsubishi Aircraft will show off a mock-up of its newly renamed SpaceJet regional jet — the first version of which is being flight tested at Moses Lake in Central Washington — that positions it for a possible breakthrough in the U.S. market.
Boeing at bay
The Paris show is the year’s biggest aviation event and typically features new airplane launches and big jet orders. This year, said Boeing sales chief Ihssane Mounir, his primary focus there will be “working with customers and addressing their issues on the 737 Max.”
He’ll be “making sure folks understand the technical aspects of the accidents, and the fixes we’ve put in place,” he said. He’ll work with airlines to come up with interim solutions to fill gaps left in their schedules by grounded jets. And he’ll try to ensure carriers have all the resources ready to return planes to flying condition and to train their pilots as soon as the grounding is lifted.
Mounir said that since the second accident he’s spent more than 85 percent of his time traveling across the globe to meet with customers face to face — including leaders at Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines, which suffered the two Max crashes that killed 346 people in all.
“Those conversations are emotional, they are difficult, and heartbreaking in many cases,” Mounir said. “But we have some pretty strong relationships, some long-lasting relationships. Over the years, we’ve demonstrated that we are reliable partners … We’re working through things.”
McAllister, too, said that meeting with airline leaders he’s known for many years, he’s been “humbled by their belief in Boeing and our people.”
“They’ve stuck with us,” he said.
Meanwhile, two variants of the Max family that have yet to be delivered to an airline are in limbo.
The first 200-seat, high-density model configured for Ryanair flew in January but is grounded at Boeing Field. The smallest 737 Max 7 variant was still in flight testing when the grounding happened.
The first wings of a third variant — the newest and largest — the Max 10, were being assembled when the fleet was grounded. That jet’s certification would be delayed only if the Max grounding were to stretch on toward year’s end.
With the intense focus on getting the Max back in the sky, Boeing’s plans for future new planes are even more uncertain.
Just last year, it seemed Boeing might announce plans at the 2019 Paris show for an all-new airplane — what it calls the New Mid-market Airplane, or NMA — a midrange, “middle-of-the-market” plane designed to be larger than the 737 single-aisle but smaller than the 787 widebody.
Its top selling point was that it would have the comfort of a widebody jet “with single-aisle economics.”
But an NMA decision has been pushed way out by the Max crisis, which may even alter Boeing’s plan for what that future plane should be.
In light of the Max crisis, analysts say there’s been some internal debate at Boeing about perhaps abandoning the NMA and instead accelerating plans for a Future Small Airplane (FSA) that is supposed to replace the Max around 2030.
Such a switch could hurt further sales of the Max. It could also leave Airbus a clear advantage in the single-aisle jet market through at least 2027, which is the earliest new engine technology for an FSA could possibly be ready.
Bjorn Fehrm, France-based aviation analyst with Leeham.net, said there are opposing camps within Boeing on whether to pull the trigger on the investment needed now for the NMA.
“The bean counters want to suck every penny out of 737 and give it to shareholders. They say we’re not forced to do the NMA,” said Fehrm. “The other camp says … we need to invest in a measured way and create exciting products. We have to go forward and make sure engineers have things to do.”
For now, the latter camp — proposing to go forward with NMA — has more backing, he said.
Aside from signaling its direction on NMA in Paris, Fehrm said Boeing’s Mounir may even announce one or two Max orders to shore up support. Perhaps the 737 customer and inveterate bargain hunter Michael O’Leary of Ryanair can be persuaded to buy some more at a fire-sale price.
“Boeing cannot have this drip feed of bad news,” said Fehrm. “They need some positive spin.”