Industry speculation remains rampant as to how Boeing will respond to the forthcoming Airbus NEO and CSeries.  The pendulum has swung from a re-engining of the 737NG to an all new airplane to counter the new, high-technology Bombardier CSeries, and additional competition from the MS-21 and C919.  The CSeries and MS-21 use new technology PW 1000G (GTF) engines, the C919 uses the Leap-X-C1 engine, and the Airbus NEO is expected to offer a choice of both.

Boeing has been slow to respond, and Jon Ostrower has broken news about another alternative, the 737NG+, with only minor tweaks to the existing product to achieve 4-5% improvements.

Boeing has begun an unusual campaign of aggressively attacking its competitors and their products, a new twist for the company.  Last week it suggested that Bombardier would have similar problems that Boeing had with the 787 with no basis for those assertions. This week Jim Albaugh claimed that the Airbus NEO will provide only a 3-4% improvement in operating costs – which doesn’t seem to add-up.

The PW GTF and Leap-X promise up to 16% fuel burn improvements, which will translate to 10-12% on wing.  Sharkets will add another 3.5%, and with fuel at 50% of operating costs for most carriers, this would result in an 8% improvement before factoring in engine cost reductions and lower environmental fees. How does Boeing come up with a number so out of line with the rest of the industry? Why would Airbus spend $1 billion plus to come up with a 3-4% savings, which wouldn’t make sense?  Something doesn’t add up in the numbers from Seattle.

The 737NG+ would be “bridge airplane” to a replacement design that provides additional tweaks to the existing model to optimize performance without the need for a re-engining.  It will be apparently be offered as an interim solution while Boeing continues to evaluate its longer-term competitive offering. Jim Albaugh, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, in an internal webcast Tuesday, said continued incremental improvements are being considered pending a new airplane design.

Boeing’s CFO recently stated that the operating cost improvement from a re-engining program will be in the single digits, and not enough for airlines to justify the capital expense for such a program.  We concur, and believe a re-engining of the 737 with the Leap-X may not be economically justifiable, given the double digit improvements expected from the competition by mid-decade.

An all-new model would require significant investment, and is unlikely to be considered until the two current development programs, the 787 and 747-8, each with significant delays, are sorted out and enter service.  Signs are promising that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting much brighter at a rapid rate, and that in early 2011 the 787 will emerge into passenger service.  But we can’t imagine the Boeing Board of Directors giving a go ahead until the 787 and 747-8 programs enter airline service.

With the profitable 777 under threat from the A350XWB, Airbus now seems to be in the driver’s seat forcing Boeing to react and choose which airplane to upgrade first, rather than Boeing forcing the issue at Airbus, when the 787 forced a total clean-sheet for the A350.  Program delays, first with the A380 and now with the 787, have changed who is ahead in the perpetual game of leap-frog, and from out of the blue, Bombardier has entered with a high-technology competitor that has will have the best economics among narrow-body competitors, with a 20% better fuel burn and 15% better operating economics than the 737-700.

In the interim, Boeing is stepping up its production volume for the 737NG and Ryanair, an all-Boeing customer, is once again talking of a 300+ aircraft order.  Adding another 300 aircraft to the 737NG backlog would buy the company additional time to wait for technologies to evolve and prove themselves before having to commit to an all new aircraft.  And if the tweaks for a 737NG+ are not too expensive, this could extend the program a bit longer, providing Boeing much needed cash that is flying out the door with the 787 and 747-8 delays.

Ryanair and Boeing have been playing a publicized game of cat and mouse, with Ryanair, an all Boeing operator, expressing an interest in new airplanes, but not at the prices being offered by Boeing.   And with only a 3-5% benefit, the NG+ will fall well short of Bombardier (15%) and the Airbus NEO (8-9%) operating cost improvements.

That, in itself, will likely force Boeing to price the 737NG+ at a discount to its competition, the CSeries or A320NEO. Having long ago fully amortized the costs of the 737NG, Boeing is at the stage it can discount pricing to build backlog and buy time.  The timing now may be right for Boeing to offer that “very low price” to Ryanair – enabling it to continue the 737NG while it prepares a longer-term competitive response.

Will Ryanair become the launch customer for an improved 737NG+, with the Sky Interior, additional improvements to the CFM-56-7, and more tweaks that will provide a 3%-5% improvement in economics?  Will Michael O’Leary finally have the leverage to obtain a great deal from Boeing to launch the NG+?

Stay tuned, as interesting developments are under way in Renton and Dublin.

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