Battered by 737 Max crisis, Boeing leaders brace for Paris

They are likely to be greeted at the biannual air show there with incessant questions.

Kevin McAllister (Boeing Co.)

Kevin McAllister (Boeing Co.)

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.

The crisis now matches in duration the three-month grounding of the 787 in 2013 because of overheating batteries, though only about 50 of those widebody jets were taken out of service versus nearly 400 Maxs at airlines around the world.

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.

Kelly of Aercap said “any discussion or decision about launching a new airplane would be foolhardy until they fix the problem with the biggest selling airplane they’ve had … They need to focus on the present.”

The jet maker has said the NMA will be designed and built in a radically new way, based on comprehensive digital modeling of both the airplane and its production system. Yet that technology approach can be applied to whatever new plane is chosen, NMA or otherwise.

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.

Both Mounir and McAllister expressed absolute confidence in the recovery of the Max.

“The Max is a new airplane. It’s got great appeal. It’s got great economics … Airlines are waiting for it to get back in service,” said Mounir. “The Max is our horse to ride.”

Yet both men were noticeably noncommittal about whether the NMA will go ahead. Each said Boeing is still studying the business case and that there is interest in it from airlines. But clearly there is now a possibility of Boeing taking a different turn.

“We continue to look at the middle of the market,” said McAllister. “Beyond that, we will always work to understand future market needs.”

Adam Pilarski, senior vice president at consulting firm Avitas, said Boeing’s best course is to proceed with its NMA plan, to learn from its development, and then apply the lessons to the more important follow-on plane, the FSA.

Bjorn Fehrm, France-based aviation analyst with, 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.”

Visitors at the 2017 Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, east of Paris, France. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Visitors at the 2017 Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, east of Paris, France. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

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.”

Airbus set to squeeze Boeing’s NMA market

The Air Show comes at a moment when, even aside from the Max crisis, the airliner business isn’t doing so well.

Most airlines are still profitable, but the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry group for airlines, cites a “slowing global economy” for reduced air traffic growth. Airline revenue per seat per mile flown is down, and IATA just cut its 2019 airline profit forecast by 21 percent.

Jet sales this year have been poor for both Airbus and Boeing, with more cancellations than new orders. Through the end of May, Airbus this year has a net decline of 58 orders, and Boeing is at minus 125 after a rush of cancellations that included 82 for the 737 Max.

Pilarski thinks that the Max being grounded has eased the global overcapacity of planes that developed in recent years, and he thinks it may cause a shock to the system when the Boeing jet returns to the sky and deliveries of the plane also resume, perhaps as the summer travel peak is subsiding.

“When the Max problems go away, capacity will grow … just as demand is weaker and summer is over,” Pilarski wrote in Aviation Week.

“This could be one of the pins that will pop the bubble.”

Aboulafia of the Teal Group said “there’s a lot of fear” of what might lie ahead for the airline business.

“The first four months of the year were not happy for orders. And from a traffic standpoint, the last two months have been truly dismal,” he said. “If we have a third or fourth month of poor traffic numbers, that’ll be all the evidence you need that something is going on.”

Yet there’s one jet that’s winning orders in this grim sales landscape: the Airbus A321. The largest version of its single-aisle jet family has completely outsold the 737 Max 9 and Max 10. And in Paris, Airbus is set to push that advantage by launching the A321XLR, an extra-long-range version that will make it capable of many more transatlantic routes.

Airbus has already produced what it called the A321LR by putting extra fuel tanks in the cargo hold. But the XLR is a better solution with a specially designed integral fuel tank.

While the A321 can comfortably fly from Western Europe to the U.S. East Coast, say London to New York, the XLR will penetrate more deeply, opening up routes such as Hamburg to Chicago.

“They’ll probably announce a clutch of orders,” said Aboulafia.

Irish carrier Aer Lingus, Iberia of Spain, U.S. carrier JetBlue and even American Airlines are all possible customers for the A321XLR.

Such a long-range single-aisle jet, capable of flying up to eight hours, is certainly a niche airplane that will be suitable only for a minority of airline routes. But launching the XLR offers Airbus an added strategic benefit: It eats into the lower end of Boeing’s proposed NMA market.

Steve Rimmer, chief executive of airplane lessor Altavair, said “there are many doubters” concerning the size of that market.

In Paris, as Boeing remains mired in the Max crisis and delays its NMA decision while its rival moves ahead with the A321XLR, the momentum is with Airbus.

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