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Boeing seeks rewrite of commercial jet rulebook

Planemaker focusing on life-cycle profit from all-new midrange jet nicknamed the 797

Boeing will use some of the systems it pioneered on the 787 to lower risk, while channelling its innovation into the design and production of the 797.


BOEING Co is seeking to rewrite the rules for creating commercial jets as it hones plans for a new midrange jet nicknamed the 797.

For decades, Boeing pushed its airplanes to fly ever farther. The 787 Dreamliner, the company's last all-new jetliner, opened nearly 200 non-stop routes. The 777X will be the first twin-engine jet designed to haul more than 400 travellers halfway around the world.

But for its next aircraft, Boeing plans to dial back the ambitions for range, shooting instead for a plane that's tailored for, say, the eight to 10-hour flight from Chicago to Central Europe. That market has been overlooked since the Berlin Wall was standing and the company's 757 and 767 were forging new trans-Atlantic connections.

What's revolutionary about the 797 is the gush of money that the world's largest planemaker hopes to get not from making and selling the plane, but from keeping it in the air.

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The initial purchase of a jet represents about 30 per cent of the lifetime costs of operating the aircraft, said Stan Deal, who heads Boeing's new global services division. Capturing a bigger slice of the remaining 70 per cent that comes from services and maintenance over the following decades represents a lucrative opportunity for Boeing - and a cushion against down cycles when airplane sales stall.

That's why Mr Deal - whose division focuses on keeping airplanes flying, from selling spare parts to scheduling crews - is deeply involved in planning for what the company calls the "NMA", for new midmarket aircraft. He's also working on a proposed military trainer jet. He said he's on the phone about every other day with Leanne Caret, head of Boeing's defence business, and commercial planes honcho Kevin McAllister, who's ultimately responsible for the 797.

"It really is a Boeing-wide effort to launch one of these," Mr Deal said ahead of the Farnborough International Airshow outside London. The NMA team is "highly integrated, with representatives from my team and Kevin's, and strong functional representation from engineering, manufacturing and supply chain".

For a third year running, the 797 - a plane that doesn't exist yet and still requires approval from Boeing's board - will loom large over the discussions of sales, strategy and supplier strain this week at the aerospace industry's largest trade expo. Boeing is mulling a two-jet family with 220 to 270 seats designed for mid-range routes.

The planes plying those 5,000-nautical miles routes now are often outdated and too heavy, or modern but with engines and wings designed to cruise 14 hours or more like its Dreamliner. While airlines would see operating costs plummet with the 797, Boeing's theory goes, passengers would cheer a roomier twin-aisle cabin and distinctive fuselage that is wider than it is tall. Boeing plans to use some of the cutting-edge systems it pioneered on the 787 to lower risk, while channelling its innovation into the design and production of the aircraft.

The Chicago-based manufacturer and its European rival, Airbus SE, are convinced they can trim costs by about one-third through new digital tools to anticipate and track how the plane is built, and how it will be flown, says Carter Copeland, an analyst with Melius Research. The NMA would put these theories to the test - if Boeing directors give it the green light.

Boeing chief executive officer Dennis Muilenburg, who is slated to unveil the company's vision of the digital factory on July 15, is a believer in the power of data. "You get first-time quality down through the entire supply chain, you enable automation in the production lines, you shrink flows in the factory," he said last year. "These things break previous economic rules, but do it in a measurable way."

There's another reason to focus on the life-cycle profit from the all-new airplane: reaping money on the factory-fresh models will be tough. Airlines want the pricing to be on par with the aircraft already on the market - such as the popular Airbus A321neo jetliners steadily edging into the same mid-range niche.

The challenge is to bring manufacturing costs down to the point where Boeing could profitably charge the US$70 million or less that major customers are willing to pay. Twin-aisle aircraft have never been made so inexpensively, and the 797 could bleed cash if Boeing misjudges the digital savings.

The Dreamliner was also supposed to be a low-cost wide-body, but Boeing lost money on the plane for a decade after outsourcing heavily and mismanaging suppliers. Since the NMA is the only all-new aircraft in development at either Boeing or Airbus, companies are eager to participate. That's given Boeing an opening to set new contracting terms with large suppliers such as Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc and United Technologies Corp.

"You have a fresh block of clay and you can try things you never tried before because you don't have to unwind old deals," said Robert Spingarn, an analyst with Credit Suisse Group AG. The 797 would complement another Boeing initiative to take more work in-house, from luxury seats to auxiliary power units. Doing so gives Boeing rights to sell the spare parts for those components over a jet's 30-year commercial life. Mr Deal's team has a laser focus on growth after Mr Muilenburg launched the division last year with marching orders to triple revenue to US$50 billion over a decade.

"To design an aircraft for life-cycle management, means you fundamentally restructure the content from your suppliers to give you more after-market royalties," said Kevin Michaels, managing director, AeroDynamic Advisory, a consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Mr Deal says Boeing continues to scout for opportunities to bring more work under its own roof. The company in particular focuses on "major pain points" for airlines, like badly delayed premium seats, as well as creating a "more enduring design-development ecosystem so that the product risk is lower as well".

Mr Michaels sees Boeing potentially extending its grip on components such as landing gear, engine coverings known as nacelles - maybe even demanding a share on the so-called aftermarket sales of the engines themselves. The strategy comes with risks, though, since Boeing is taking on more of the manufacturing costs previously borne by suppliers. BLOOMBERG

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