A Boeing 757 takes off from Los Angeles International Airport. Boeing is considering the launch of a new model, informally known as the 797, to effectively replace the 757, which is no longer in production. (BriYYZ via Wikimedia Commons)

A Boeing 757 takes off from Los Angeles International Airport. Boeing is considering the launch of a new model, informally known as the 797, to effectively replace the 757, which is no longer in production. (BriYYZ via Wikimedia Commons)

What will the 797 look like — and will Boeing even build it?

The company’s consideration of an all-new airplane was all the buzz at an aerospace conference this week.

LYNNWOOD — Boeing’s vice president of commercial airplane sales, Randy Tinseth, politely declined this week to reveal the status of the company’s possible new “middle-market” airplane, unofficially dubbed the 797.

“Why wait until the Paris Air Show in June when you can reveal it at the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance conference in Lynnwood?” asked a participant. That got a big laugh.

Tinseth’s reply was the standard company line: Boeing has “a little bit more work to do. … Our engineers are looking at this. We’re working closely with customers.”

The alliance’s four-day event, which drew hundreds of aerospace suppliers, manufacturers and analysts, focused on the art of boosting productivity while strengthening the bottom line.

But the buzz was all about the 797.

One aisle or two?

Where will it be built?

Will it be built?

There’s no consensus on what the plane might look like or if Boeing will even launch the project.

“They’ll probably do it,” said Richard Aboulafia, a prominent aerospace analyst and vice president of the Teal Group. But Aboulafia put the probability at just 65 percent.

Aboulafia later said that his confidence level has “diminished a bit.”

“The company continues to ramp up its returns to shareholders, while delaying this project,” Aboulafia said. “That adds a bit more uncertainty. But most likely, the delay is just the problems of getting the production and operating economics right.”

Then there was speculation as to whether the 797 would emerge from the drawing board as a single-aisle or twin-aisle aircraft.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group.

A twin-aisle 797 could cannibalize sales of the company’s 787 twin-aisle — a best seller, Aboulafia said.

Plus, sales of twin aisles, once hot, are now “flat” in a crowded market, Aboulafia said.

For the 797 to be an attractive buy for airlines, the price tag would have to be in the $70 million to $80 million range, said Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, a Michigan-based consulting firm.

To achieve that price point, Boeing has “to get the cost of the twin-aisle in line with a single-aisle,” Aboulafia said.

Michaels offered a surprise prediction — that the 797 could, in fact, be a two-fer.

“I think we’re going to see two airplanes out of this,” Michaels said.

“They’ll work the bugs out on a twin-aisle 797, and then announce a new single-aisle,” he said.

“They can’t open the door for Airbus,” he added, referring to the Airbus A321, a single-aisle aircraft, and the A330, a twin-aisle.

Suppliers, except for the engine companies, have been kept at “arms’ length” on this one, Michaels said.

One reason, of course, is that Boeing doesn’t want to tip its hand to rival Airbus. Airbus expects future versions of its narrow-body A321 and wide-body A330 jets could nicely fill the “mid-market” niche at a lower cost than what Boeing could offer.

The new airplane would fit somewhere between the largest 737 and the smallest 787, with a capacity comparable to the old Renton-built 757, which was discontinued in 2005 but is still widely flown. With 200 to 270 seats and a range of about 5,000 nautical miles, the 797 would fill a narrow void.

Boeing anticipates the airline industry would need from 4,000 to 5,000 of these mid-market airplanes over the next two decades.

Expanded routes in Asia and China and the continued growth in air travel are fueling demand.

“No matter what happens in the economy, people really want to fly,” Aboulafia said.

Over the next two decades, the airline industry will need about 40,000 new passenger jets and freighters valued at more than $6 trillion, according to market studies by Boeing and Airbus.

Demand for medium-size aircraft that can accommodate up to 300 passengers — which is where the 797 would fit — is pegged at about 5,000 and valued at roughly $1.5 trillion.

Small aircraft, capable of carrying 100 to 230 passengers, will claim the largest share — about 25,000 airplanes. The segment will represent about 54 percent of value, according to Airbus’ 2018 Global Market Forecast.

The remainder, large and extra-large aircraft, represent the smallest share and about $1.2 trillion of value.

Asia and the Pacific will account for more than 40 percent of deliveries, followed by North American and Europe for a combined 35 percent.

The expectation is that Boeing will announce its intentions this year at the Paris Air Show in June — or not.

Said Aboulafia: “If it doesn’t happen this year, I don’t think it will happen.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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