Here comes Boeing’s next big flyer. This week at the 2017 Paris Air Show, the company discussed some design details for a new passenger plane, revealing that the aircraft will have a composite fuselage with a “hybrid cross-section” and “fifth-generation” composite wings. The airliner has been called the 797 at the show. However, Boeing’s official project name (for now) is simply New Midsize Airplane (NMA).
The NMA is to be a twin-aisle plane with a capacity for 220 to 270 passengers and a range of 5,200 nautical miles, according to Aviation Week. The new airliner would fill a gap between the narrow-body 737 MAX and wide-body 787 Dreamliner, which have ranges as high as 3,800 nmi and over 8,000 nmi, respectively. Boeing wants a plane to fly routes in that gap around 5,000 nmi—say, New York to Moscow, or even further.
Boeing unveiled a timetable in which design work would happen in late 2018 through 2020. It would then build the aircraft components in 2020-1, assemble the new plane in 2023, and fly it for the first time in 2024, with the new aircraft ultimately entering service in 2025. The company predicts a market for more than 4,000 of these planes.
Building such a jet will require Boeing to expand its carbon fiber composite manufacturing. The composite fuselage sections of the 787 Dreamliner are manufactured in North Charleston, South Carolina; Wichita, Kansas; and Nagoya, Japan. Boeing also just built a billion-dollar factory in Everett, Washington, to bake the epoxy-infused carbon fiber wings of the 777X. The NMA’s composite fuselage may require a new factory.
Boeing hasn’t been exactly clear about what it means when it refers to the NMA fuselage as composite with a “hybrid cross-section.” However, the Seattle Times reports that Boeing vice president Mike Delaney used the term to mean a fuselage with elements of both a narrow-body and a wide-body—though the plane will likely have two aisles—rather than “hybrid” meaning it would use both composite and metallic materials.
For the new aircraft’s engines, Boeing is looking for a geared turbofan. Geared turbofans are aircraft engines that achieve greater efficiency by placing a gearbox in between the fan and the turbine assembly so they can rotate at different velocities. The versatility provides greater optimization of engine speed during different parts of flight.
Pratt Whitney and Rolls-Royce have both offered engines for consideration. Pratt Whitney is researching the possibility of upgrading a geared turbofan engine it already makes, the PW1000G, while Rolls-Royce is arguing for a geared turbofan currently in development known as the UltraFan. Although they do not currently make a geared turbofan, CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines of France, is also considered a likely candidate to build a new engine. CFM has not formally announced that it will offer an engine for NMA consideration, but Aviation Week reports that the company discussed some information about a new project, possibly a geared turbofan.
“We are not ruling out any architecture,” said Francois Bastin, Executive Vice President and General Manager of CFM, which makes the LEAP engine with carbon-fiber fan blades used on the 737 MAX. “We have no religion, or have no dogma, against the gear.”
Boeing is going to be introducing its newest aircraft, the 737 MAX 9 and 787-10, to market in the coming years. The aviation giant also announced that it has started studying AI systems that could eventually be used to augment autopilot and build a self-flying plane. But years before we see a passenger plane without a captain, we will see the flight of the 797—if indeed that is what it’s to be called.