As the future of the 737 MAX remains shrouded in uncertainty, United Airlines is pushing Boeing for further insight on its 797 program.
Asked about it during an earnings calls on Wednesday, United Chief Financial Officer Gerry Laderman said:
We would like to see some clarity so that we can make the choice. But we do have a little bit of time.
The choice Laderman is referring to is the choice United faces to replace its aging fleet of 757 and 767 aircraft. United has 76 757s and 54 767s, a total of 130 aircraft. While we will see these aircraft flying for United for many more years to come, they are aging and also not as fuel efficient as modern aircraft.
Looking ahead, United has already asked Airbus and Boeing to propose a replacement. Airbus has already presented its answer: the A321XLR. That plane will have a range of 4,700 nautical miles, more than any narrowbody aircraft.
Meanwhile, it is unclear if Boeing will even compete. A “new midmarket airplane” (NMA) is the official codeword for the new aircraft, though analysts have dubbed it the 797. Boeing is still studying the business case for the NMA, but has shifted the bulk of its attention to the troubled 737 MAX program.
In fact, in what may be a bad sign for the NMA program, Mark Jenks was moved from heading the 797 to heading the 737 MAX only last week. It is still unclear who will step in to lead the 797 program, but Boeing would be wise to recognize that time is of the essence.
American Airlines already ordered 50 A321XLR jets. These aircraft will replace its own 757-200 fleet (34 aircraft). Delta, with a combined 193 757 and 767 aircraft in its fleet, may also defect to Airbus if Boeing does not come up with a plan fast.
The 737 MAX problems for Boeing reach beyond the 737 MAX itself. With the manpower now redirected into fixing that troubled division, other programs…like the NMA…are in a pensive waiting mode.