797. The Plane That Never Was.

April 2, 2020

ANOTHER casualty of coronavirus, almost surely, will be the Boeing 797.

The 797, also known as the “new midsize aircraft” (NMA), is an idea Boeing has been kicking around for twenty years. In terms of size, range and capacity, it would fit between the 737 and the 787. A replacement, in other words, for the venerable and incredibly versatile 757. If you know airplanes, imagine a smaller 787, or a modernized 767-200 or Airbus A310. A quasi-widebody that can generate profits long-range or short, domestic or between continents.

Boeing should have signed off on the project a long time ago. Instead, they kept force-feeding us monsterized 737s. Then came the 737 MAX fiasco. Right on its heels is COVID-19, which has thrown the global aviation industry to onto the ledge of catastrophe. Regardless of when this is over, a new, clean-sheet airframe is about the last thing Boeing or its customers will have the time or resources to deal with.

Which is too bad, because all along there has been a glaring need for a medium-sized, 200-ish seater with the 757’s legs and payload — a reality that Boeing has foolishly denied from the start. And in a post-coronavirus airline industry, any long-term capacity reductions could intensify that need.

Proposed 797 configuration with 226 seats.

Airbus has stepped in with the A321-XLR, a stretched, longer-range, souped-up version of the baseline A320. A 757 knockoff, it kind of, almost, sort-of-but-not-really does the job. A downer, I know, but that’s as close as we’re going to get.

Airbus will sell a thousand XLRs, mark my words. For carriers it’s the only option. And Boeing will be left looking dumber than it does already.

Indeed, we might not see an all-new design from Boeing or Airbus for the next 30 years. one factor is the incredible amount of time it takes nowadays for a plane to move from the planning stages to commercial service. How things have changed. Fifty years ago, the 747 went from an idea on the back of a napkin to an actual, flying aircraft, in two years. Today, just building a derivative from an existing model can take twice that long. And that’s what we’ll continue seeing: more derivatives. Boeing has been milking the 737 since 1965. The A320 debuted in 1988. One can easily see the 777, 787, A330 and A350 tracking similar evolutions. We won’t have a new model because they take too long and they’re too damn expensive, and also because there won’t be a need for one: derivatives will have all the possible ranges and seating combinations covered for the foreseeable future. The 797 was the one remaining niche crying out for a new plane. Boeing chose to ignore it; Airbus threw a patch on it. And off we go.


Related Stories:

COVID CASUALTIES
BOEING BET THE FUTURE ON THE 737. DID IT LOSE?
ODE TO THE 767.

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31 Responses to “797. The Plane That Never Was.”
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  1. Michael Spencer says:

    “And that’s what we’ll continue seeing: more derivatives”

    Ok. Point taken. But: is it true that the aircraft business has been approaching maturity?

    Many of the issues in aircraft design, perhaps, having been solved, leaving very little room for a new class of airplane like the 747 was when introduced. In fact, you are asking for a ‘replacement’ for the 757, aren’t you? One with similar ‘legs’, as you put it, and other similar features? Hardly a new category is it?

    We DO see aircraft designs with radical departures; the modified ‘flying wing’ exemplifying a new aircraft class (and with its own set of problems). But our host is asking for “A replacement, in other words, for the venerable and incredibly versatile 757”.

    Design development, on the other hand, is an entirely different issue. Boeing and airbus engineers today are no less talented and motivated than those working on the 747. It’s the industry that’s become moribund, not the dedicated designers. Surely the example of SpaceX clarifies the point.

    The Space Launch System (SLS) will be entirely defeated by SpaceX offerings that outperform at much lower costs. Are the design engineers at SX better than those at Boeing? Very, very doubtful.The aircraft industry does not necessarily need a new aircraft. The industry needs a new player with the SX ethic.

    • Patrick says:

      One complication with bringing on the “SX ethic” is how that ethic fits within the greater infrastructure of commercial aviation. There are some intriguing concept designs out there. But, how do you get them to operate successfully within the huge — and hugely complicated — system that exists? I’m talking about air traffic control, airport and ground support, etc. This is one of the reasons why changes in aviation happen so damn slowly. Anything truly radical requires dismantling and rebuilding the whole system. Much about the nuts and bolts of commercial flight operations are, to this day, unchanged from the 1950s or 1960s. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but there are reasons why it’s difficult to, as they say, shift the paradigm.

  2. Vinnie Prim says:

    Patrick, you know I have always supported you to the nth degree on the 757. You’re right, the 797 is too late. I worked as a FA for Eastern, although assigned to their 747’s (loaners) and l-1011, I flew a lot on the 757 and loved that plane and the 727 for their versatility. Even though I was not flying the plane, you can just feel it’s maneuverability. I look up EVERY time the opening theme plays for The Golden Girls just to see that 727 in full landing configuration of final to MIA. I since got my Private Pilot License and would love to take the 727 or 757 for a spin around the block. Best Regards, Vinnie.

  3. Jessica says:

    Why does it take so much longer to develop a clean-slate aircraft now?

  4. Carlos Si says:

    The 797 was shelved a good while before the covid-19 pandemic actually. It’s definitely done for now, or any new aircraft.

  5. Mitch says:

    Patrick, I will send you a cross-section comparison from the 737NG and 757 Airplane Characteristics documents.

    Cabin widths and floor locations are the same; the 757 may have a bit more under-bin headroom due to the 737’s larger bins.
    That said, I agree – the 757’s cabin has always seemed a bit roomier. Probably differences between the seats, not the airplanes. Seat height and window seat wall proximity are set by the airline’s seat supplier, not by Boeing.

  6. Mitch says:

    Patrick, some airlines – including yours – are trying to recover some lost revenue by using their Boeing and Airbus long-range wide-bodies as partial cargo aircraft. The bellies are filled with cargo pallets and containers without any passengers in the cabin.

    https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-airlines-flying-cargo-only-planes-for-medical-supplies-mail-2020-4

    Some airlines are about to take the next step: strip the passenger cabin of seats, galleys, and lavs then load main deck cargo in pallets or containers sized to fit thru the entry doors. The cargo will be pushed in on ball mats, moved fore and aft on rollers, then clamped to the seat tracks.

  7. Bruce says:

    @Simon –

    Thanks – that’s really helpful.

  8. Mitch says:

    Patrick – thanks for the link to your “Ode To The 757”.

    You wrote “… the A321 “neo,” might prove to be more suitable, time will tell. If so, and if Airbus begins to rack up orders, then shame on Boeing.”

    That’s what happened. As of Jan 31st 2020, Airbus had sold 3,373* A321NEOs – more than TRIPLE the 757’s total sales of 1,050* airplanes. Shame on Boeing indeed. If your airline survives the coronavirus, you could become an A321 pilot, sidestick and all.
    [* from Wikipedia].

    You also wrote “The [737] passenger cabin is skinny and uncomfortable, using a fuselage cross-section unchanged from the 707.”

    The 757 and 737 have the same cross-section; their cabin dimension differ only in length. What is now “skinny” was “wide” in 1967.
    Go to: https://www.flickr.com/photos/132080898@N06/33978048991/sizes/k/
    At that time the 737’s short-range jet competition was 5-abreast was jets like the BAC-111 and DC-9. The 737’s big advantage then was its wider and taller cabin – the same cross-section as long range 707s and DC-8s.

    The major difference between the 737 and 757 is the former’s “screw the crew” flight deck. Back in the 1990’s when Boeing was creating the 737NG, there was a study to use the 757 flight deck. Nixed because of concerns about the common type rating vs earlier 737s. Plus increased structural weight and, as always, cost. As a result, 737NG crews are flying 7+-hour sectors squeezed into a two-hour flight deck. As for any observer seat comfort – fuggeddabbouddit.

    • Patrick says:

      I might be wrong, but I thought the 757 cabin was slightly taller than the 737’s. Or else the floor is placed differently. Whatever makes it so, sitting in a window seat in a 757 feels vastly less claustrophobic than the same seat in a 737, where your shoulder is pressed against the sidewall.

      As for the flight deck, the 737 “jump seat” is literally just a slab of aluminum that folds flat. There’s no worse place to sit in all of commercial aviation.

  9. Mac says:

    Patrick, I love your stuff and I know these are trying times, but please proofread your first sentence. And first line of third paragraph.

    • Patrick says:

      Fixed. Thank you. I probably proofread those lines three or four times. But that’s the problem when proofreading your own material: you already know the sentence, and so you “hear it” more than you see it, and mistakes like that slip right by.

  10. Mitch says:

    Seventeen years ago 757 sales were sinking fast. In Oct 2003, Boeing ended the program – probably one of their all-time dumbest decisions.

    Too bad. The 757 is a beautiful airplane. Patrick your type rating should also apply to the 757. Have you flown them? What’s your opinion of the 757?

    The 757 is gone forever. The last delivery was in 2004. All the tooling has been scrapped. The supply chain is long gone. The 757’s PWA and RR engines are out of production. The Renton engineering, production and assembly facilities were partly converted to 737 and P-8 use but were mostly razed. That land was sold to commercial and residential developers.

    Like it or not, the A321NEO is the de facto 757 replacement. It’s a 757 match except for cruise speed – M 0.78 vs the 757’s M 0.80. The A321 wing is too small – it is highly loaded with limtedfuel capacity. The result is that the A321NEO LR and XLR need belly tanks, which reduce cargo..

    The A321NEO – all ranges – has sold more than twice as many airplanes than the entire 757 production. Even before the ongoing catastrophic airline situation, a 797 would have had very stiff competition. Airbus could make an “A322”: an A321NEO with an enlarged composite wing (like the 777X vs 777-300ER). There would enough fuel in the wing to end the need for belly tanks. It would be designed for higher cruise speed. The fuselage could have a slight stretch.

    It would take Boeing a decade and $20 billion to compete. That’s why there may never be a 797.

  11. Hi Patrick – Hope you are well. Are you flying at all? I will go back to what I have been saying…if they could just soup up the 757 – between the 200 and the 300 they have the range and capacity…composite materials, more efficient engines etc…they have the framework…I dont see the need to start from scratch…757 is a great machine.
    Be well,
    Mike

  12. Paul Houle says:

    Since every state in the U.S. has two senators, there has long been a political motivation for defense production to be spread out geographically.

    The same has happened on an international basis for airliner production.

    Japan, for instance, could make commercial airliners. Their government might want to push a “national champion”, put a tariff on imported jets, etc. Instead they can point to major parts of the Dreamliner that are made there.

    Airbus was a genius stroke of political engineering: had Europe done what their instinct was, you’d have Lufthansa flying German planes, Air France flying French planes, etc. They would all be unprofitable, subsidized, getting their clocks cleaned by McDonald Douglas, PanAm, etc.

    Instead the Europeans teamed up to make a market bloc that was sustainable and they build from there.

    Innovation lately has come from the regional jet makers who used to have such a stigma that Boeing and Airbus didn’t want to put their names on them.

    Once you have ridden an E195 or A220 though, and then you get out of a 737 with your ears ringing, you see the 737 has the stigma now and Airbus and Boeing are buying the competition (or at least trying!)

  13. Conor G. says:

    I feel this is one of the only situations where Boeing could make a new 757. Even if it is just a plane for in between the original 757 and a NMA, I feel they should just get more efficient engines, throw them on a 757, and call it done. It would work much better than the little that has been done, and it would be cheap to make considering it uses the same fuselage.

  14. Lee Taplinger says:

    US regulators are not motivated to insure competition by limiting mergers and acquisitions, they’re motivated to knuckle under to political pressure even when they should see a duopoly in the future. And once we have a duopoly we’re painted into a corner. Good management and precision become afterthoughts and then we’re left holding a big bag of crap that’s too big to fail, waiting for a government or taxpayer bailout.

  15. Ben says:

    The bean-counting know-nothings from McDonnell Douglas ruined Boeing.

  16. Simon says:

    Re: why A330neo and 350

    Quite simple. Take the successful A330 and slap on new engines developed for the Dreamliner. Done. You have an excellent mid-sized aircraft that’s cheap to produce and sells great to airlines not willing to a) spend a whole lot of money on a brand new fancy A350 and b) don’t want to wait for 5+ years until their A350 rolls off the line.

    The A350 is a 777 competitor while the A330neo gives Airbus a less expensive product to compete with the Dreamliner in that market.

    A renewed A310 would indeed be a kind of NMA, possibly more so than the A321neo. But truth be told, which airline really wanted that? Nobody’s ordering the original smaller 787-8, it’s all -9 and -10 now. Likewise, nobody wanted to buy Airbus’ original lower cost A350-800. And now nobody seems to be interested in the A330-800, it’s the -900 for almost all airlines.

    Judging by the airlines’ reaction, the A321neo is the NMA. And the only people for which that is a true problem are those who simply dislike the fact that for an NMA you obviously can’t stick to Boeing. Their loss.

  17. Bruce says:

    @Brian Richard Allen:

    As far as I’m aware, being from “the third world” doesn’t make someone unfit to be a pilot and merely someone in a “pilot costume”.

  18. Savannah says:

    Derivative upon derivative – indeed, the Taco Bell method. Different configurations with the same ingredients. Of course, there was no more need for the 757, they said. Newer and better things were coming down the pike, that there was no longer a niche for her, they said. I bet the bullet hole in everyone’s collective foot burns, doesn’t it? But hey, we have the MAX, right?!?

  19. Brian Richard Allen says:

    …. now it takes a decade just to redevelop one old design and turn it into an airbus ….

    And soon young third-world people in pilot costumes are sitting up there in the pointy bit and allowing aeroplane-plumber-designed systems to stick them in the ground.

  20. Paul Houle says:

    Second-tier aircraft manufacturers such as Embraer and Bombardier have led the way in building new aircraft. The E195 and A220 are smaller than the 737 on the outside but feel big on the inside. From Love Field or some similar airport you could run hub-and-spoke service to the nation, also there could be more regional airlines for places that are not well served today (e.g. New England)

    If that class of airliner eats the 737 from the small end, there could be a market for the 797, which I guess would be a baby dreamliner.

  21. Bruce says:

    While we’re on this….

    I can’t understand why there’s an A330neo and an A350. The A350 is a tiny bit bigger, and has a slightly longer range, but realistically they seem so similar that they’ll just cannibalise each other’s sales. If there is a 797-type market, surely it would have made more sense for Airbus to develop either the A330neo or the A350, but not both, and then develop a replacement for the A310.

    I’d have certainly imagined that there’d be a market for something this size: as @Zecrunch87 says, there’d surely be a market for intra-Asian (and domestic Australian and US flights) that currently use A321s.

    At the same time, Patrick, you’ve spoken before about the need for fewer, larger aircraft in an effort to reduce congestion. There are so many 737 / A320 flights in China that delays are disastrous: out of my last 50 domestic flights into and out of Beijing, I’ve been on time once. Switching to larger planes would definitely help.

  22. Bruce says:

    @ Michael Kennedy:

    “Boeing used to make great airplanes until they farmed out the engineering to minimum wage people in third world countries to save a few bucks.”

    There was a lot more to it than saving a few bucks. Airbus set up manufacturing in China not because it was cheaper – it wasn’t – but because it was a way to gain the favours of the Chinese government, and it made it easier for the company to secure sales in the biggest airliner market. I assume Boeing followed a similar pattern.

  23. Michael Kennedy says:

    All civilizations have a peak after which they enter decline and the peak for the US was when Obama was president. It’s been a shit show since. (I sensed it was coming so I left the country.) It’s not going to get any better in our lifetime. Boeing used to make great airplanes until they farmed out the engineering to minimum wage people in third world countries to save a few bucks. They’ll get what they deserve – a slow and agonizing death . . .

  24. David Bunin says:

    Something is very wrong with that graphic. The engines are much too close to the fuselage. For one thing, you’d never be able to open the inboard cowling door, and also the jet blast is pointed right at the landing gear. The real engines would need to be a bit more outboard than what is shown. About where there is a gap in the trailing edge flaps.

    Isn’t it shocking to think that Boeing once developed three completely new (and mostly excellent) models within one decade? The 727 (1962) the 737 (1967) and the 747 (1969). At the same time, it also toyed with the stillborn supersonic transport (model 2707). Now it takes a decade just to develop one new design, and then it usually sucks for the first several years of use.

  25. zecrunch87 says:

    Since Airbus and Boeing aren’t convinced by an NMA aircraft, perhaps COMAC should abandon the CR929 (a carbon A330 without good prospects against 787/A350 re-engines) and build that instead. The aircraft would be the ideal replacement for intra-Asia dense routes operated by A330s/777s where cargo revenue aren’t high enough to justify the weight penalties.
    It would be reminiscent of what Airbus did with the A320, shaking up Boeing and Mcdonnell Douglas who updated their 737/DC9 in the early 80s.

  26. Hope remains that designers go even further and can sell it to the rulers.Hybrid lighter than air solar powered birds that pump energy out when they’re at the gate seem awfully good!
    Perhaps this airpocalypse will open some minds. As always, enjoy your journalism!

    • Patrick says:

      Next time you’re in a window seat during a flight when the sun is against your side of the plane, put your hand against the window and notice how incredibly hot it feels. Hour after hour, planes absorb a tremendous amount of sunlight energy. Seems such a waste. Imagine a sort of photovoltaic skin that could be stretched over the fuselage, feeding into a battery pack. That energy could be pumped out later for use in the terminal, etc., or to run aircraft systems on the ground instead of a fuel-drinking APU.