April 28, 2020 / 4:14 PM / 3 months ago

Planemakers slow plans for new jets as they focus on survival

PARIS, April 28 (Reuters) - Planemakers are drastically slowing work on new projects to save cash as they focus on surviving a downturn expected to last well into this decade, industry sources said.

Plane giants Airbus and Boeing are expected to emphasise immediate priorities over long-term plans in financial results on Wednesday, as air travel remains severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The fresh approach was trailed by Boeing's decision to scrap a $4.2 billion tie-up with Brazil's Embraer, whose engineers had been expected to play a key role in developing the next round of Boeing jets.

Boeing shelved plans in January to develop a pair of jets to replace the 757 and 767, known as the New Midsized Airplane (NMA) programme, while focusing on getting its grounded 737 MAX back in service.

Since then, Boeing has been looking at distilling the two-aircraft NMA programme into one new 757-style plane, while studying a more modest 767 upgrade, sources said.

That would have laid the groundwork for the future MAX successor, an embryonic project known as Future Small Airplane.

"Everything on NMA, FSA and so on has been stopped for now," a person familiar with the matter said.

Other projects likely to take a backseat include a previously unreported plan to give the 767 wide-bodied jet a new lease of life with new wings and engines.

Flightglobal reported in October that Boeing was talking to General Electric about a "767-X" with new engines. But people familiar with the matter said Boeing had instead been studying a costlier plan to add new wings as well.

Boeing declined to comment on individual projects, but denied any sweeping halt.

"We’ll continue to look at what the future market will need and invest in research and development," a spokesman said.

Leeham News analyst Scott Hamilton said in a note the coronavirus crisis would "completely upend" product strategies.

Since Boeing delivered its final passenger 767 in 2014, the model has enjoyed a rebirth as a cargo workhorse and needs modifying to meet 2028 emissions standards.

One insider said the 767 study focused on the plane's role as a freighter, while others saw a possible passenger role.

757-PLUS

A 757 replacement would counter strong sales of the Airbus A321 and allow Boeing to pioneer systems needed in future replacements of all small and medium jets - notably cockpits.

Boeing stopped making the roughly 240-seat 757 in 2004. Any replacement would have slightly more range and seats, with one source nicknaming it "757-Plus".

At Airbus, work continues on the A321XLR, a long-range addition to its best-selling narrow-body family.

But the company has scrapped a hybrid-electric flight demonstrator it was working on with Rolls-Royce for future "decarbonised" planes called E-Fan-X. And Chief Executive Guillaume Faury is weeding out a rash of eye-catching but non-core projects inherited from his predecessor, insiders say.

Faury has said Airbus remains committed to working on green aircraft of the future but at a slower pace amid the crisis.

Also on the back-burner are confidential studies for freighter versions of A330neo or A350 aircraft, sources said.

"Airbus is always looking at new concepts based on existing platforms but it is really premature to speculate about the scope and timing of future Airbus freighter opportunities," a spokesman said, declining to comment on specific proposals.

Analysts say Boeing's 777X upgrade of the 777 mini-jumbo, which first flew in January, could be further delayed due to a slump in demand for widebody aircraft due to the pandemic. (Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Mark Potter)

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