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Although the Boeing 737 Max remains grounded, the situation has not stopped the US airframer from progressing with development of the largest member of the narrowbody family, the Max 10.
On 22 November, Boeing quietly unveiled the first flight-test 737-10, a variant designed to compete against the Airbus A321neo but which has so far failed to win the same sales success.
Analysts see the -10 as an aircraft with good economics that will fit well into the fleets of existing Max customers, allowing them to fly nearly any route they might choose for a narrowbody.
But they note the 737-10's sales prospects remain muted beside the A321neo, which has more range and capacity, and the flexibility to be further modified.
"The Max 10 is a nice addition and complement to Max operators. It is an aircraft that definitely will integrate well in existing Max fleets," says Michel Merluzeau, from industry consultancy AIR.
Boeing unveiled the first Max 10 during a ceremony for employees in Renton, Washington. The company stresses its commitment to safety and customers, and says the variant "offers the lowest seat-mile cost of any single-aisle airplane ever produced".
First flight is expected in 2020, says Boeing, although it declines to specify a timeframe for service-entry, saying it depends on factors including certification by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the re-engined single-aisle’s family's flight-control software. The company has been largely silent on the development of the Max 10 since regulators grounded the in-service Max fleet in March.
Boeing launched the 737-10, the largest variant of the Max line-up, at the Paris air show in 2017 as a competitor to the A321neo.
The Max 10 will be capable of seating up to 230 passengers and, with an auxiliary fuel tank, have a range of 3,300nm (6,100km). That is 10 more seats and about 250nm less range than 737 Max 9, according to Boeing's figures.
Boeing holds orders for 531 Max 10s, with top customers including Flydubai, Lion Air, United Airlines and VietJet Air, according to Cirium fleets data.
But that is a fraction of the 3,142 orders Airbus had hauled in for the A321neo by the end of October. With its Airbus Cabin Flex configuration it can carry up to 244 passengers or fly 206 passengers up to 4,000nm in the A321LR guise, according to the manufacturer’s figures.
Further complicating Boeing's position, Airbus is developing a 244-passenger, 4,700nm-range variant, the A321XLR, which is due to arrive in 2023.
"Boeing is being beaten [on sales] by a factor of five," Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia says. "This has become a serious problem."
In the meantime, the A321neo continues to attract orders: "It seems to be snowballing. Everybody seems to want one," says Aboulafia.
Indeed, at the recent Dubai air show, Airbus added another 57 A321neos to its backlog, including 30 of the XLR variant.
Putting aside the 737 Max grounding, Aboulafia sees the Max 10 and A321neo segment – the so-called "middle of the market" – as the only one in which Boeing is truly struggling.
Boeing has considered filling the niche with a clean-sheet widebody, the New Mid-market Airplane (NMA), which would enter service around the middle of next decade. But the 737 Max grounding, and troubles with the 777X programme, appears to have put those plans on hold.
Some analysts think Boeing will still move forward with the NMA, but Aboulafia suggests it might leapfrog the development, moving straight to a 737 replacement, known in industry circles as the "future single aisle" (FSA).
Larger variants of such an aircraft could compete where the A321neo and, indeed, the ageing 757, currently sit, Aboulafia says.
Development of the FSA would likely take a few more years than the NMA, largely driven by the requirement for a step-change in propulsion technology. Nonetheless, Boeing could perhaps develop such a model by 2027, Aboulafia believes.
But the delay might be worthwhile. "Clearly the answer is a 757-class [jet]," Aboulafia says. "They do it right and get a killer product at the heart of the market."
In the meantime, though, the 737-10 must slug it out with the A321neo as best it can.
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