Boeing Co. is studying whether an innovative plane it’s developing with NASA could find a home in its lineup next decade, the company’s top executive said, offering a tantalizing glimpse into its product strategy.
Later this decade, the US planemaker plans to fly a full-scale prototype of the single-aisle jet, whose size could make it an eventual successor to the 737 Max. Boeing and NASA have been working on a concept for nearly 15 years that reduces drag — and fuel burn — with extra-long, thin wings that are stabilized by diagonal struts attached to the bottom of the plane’s fuselage.
The design, combined with improvements in engine technology, could trim fuel consumption and emissions by around 30% over Boeing’s 737 Max and Airbus SE’s A320neo family — the current workhorses for airlines across the globe.
Such gains would meet the “standard needed to launch a commercial airplane,” Dave Calhoun, Boeing’s chief executive officer, said Wednesday during an earnings conference call.
“The program that we’ve embarked on here is how do you commercialize it?” Calhoun said of its futuristic design. “So, there’s real intent there to be able to do it.”
Boeing is currently testing digital tools it would use to design and manufacture the jets on several defense programs, he added.
Calhoun shocked Wall Street last year by declaring the aviation titan wouldn’t undertake an all-new jetliner this decade to try and winnow Airbus’s lead in the narrowbody market. Last week, NASA awarded Boeing $425 million to help create a new generation of greener jetliners ready to enter the commercial market in the 2030s. The planemaker and its partners will provide another $725 million.
The long-winged jet doesn’t yet have a catchy moniker, like Max or Dreamliner. It’s been called the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator, after the NASA project, and is also known as the “transonic truss-braced wing” within Boeing. And while it’s not clear if the concept would work for widebody jets built to fly half-way around the world, “it will definitely have a role to play someday in the narrowbody world,” Calhoun said.
The US planemaker hasn’t built a full-scale jetliner model to test a groundbreaking design since executives bet the company in the early 1950s on the so-called “Dash 80,” shorthand for the Boeing 376-80. The prototype sold airline executives on jet travel and technology later used on the 707, the company’s first commercial jetliner.