Boeing is reportedly pitching its planned 797 airliner series at Chinese carriers that will need more planes to meet Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road trade expansion into emerging economies.
The embattled US manufacturer, which is seeking a marketing lifeline after two fatal crashes within six months involving its 737 Max 8 aircraft, hopes the state-owned Chinese airlines will be launch customers for the next-generation mid-sized passenger plane. A twin-aisle jet with seven-abreast seating, the Boeing 797 is widely expected to be unveiled at the Paris Airshow in July.
Chinese newspapers have said the 797 could be a “tailor-made” solution for airlines opening up new medium-distance Belt and Road routes from China to South Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and even Africa – destinations that are close to the ancient Silk Road trading routes.
The South China Morning Post quoted Boeing vice-president for marketing Randy Tinseth as saying that the plane could operate on routes where larger twin-aisle jets would be too big and costly to fly. Single-aisle jets would also be too limited in their range.
Tinseth told an aviation forum in Hong Kong last week that Chinese carriers would realize better returns by flying more middle-of-the-market planes to continents like Europe and Africa.
The 797, given the working name New Midsize Airplane by Boeing, is expected to roll off assembly lines by the mid-2020s if there is enough demand. It will be available in two versions: a 225-seater with a range of 9,300 kilometers and a 275-seater with a range of 8,300km. The cost is likely to range from US$65 million to $75 million per plane.
China Southern and Air China are among the potential customers, as they will be phasing out mid-market planes like the A330 and Boeing 767, which are now 15 to 25 years old.
But Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, one of Asia’s largest international carriers by fleet size, cautioned that airlines must not be pushed into launching new routes in emerging markets if there was no business case. It also forecast that airlines would need to join forces to open up some routes, as they could only justify offering one or two flights per week.
Boeing has not secured any new orders from China since November 2017, largely because aircraft sales have become a pawn in the political drama being waged behind the protracted US-China trade war. Instead, they have turned to the European-based Airbus consortium, which bagged deals for 300 new planes worth €30 billion (US$33.66 billion) when Xi visited France last month.
China was also one of the first countries to revoke its airworthiness certificates for the troubled 737 Max, dealing a blow to Boeing’s only overseas assembly and delivery center at Zhoushan, in Zhejiang province. This came only a few months after the plant had started producing the Max.
Undaunted, the local government in Zhoushan has reserved a large chunk of land for the facility’s future expansion: It might even be assembling the 797 once trade tensions have eased.