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Originally published Friday, May 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Boeing pushes back design development of 737 replacement jet

Boeing's schedule for developing a replacement for its Renton-built 737 narrow-body jet has officially been pushed out some years into the...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing's schedule for developing a replacement for its Renton-built 737 narrow-body jet has officially been pushed out some years into the future.

The company in 2006 created a team led by top executives to do preliminary studies on the replacement's design configuration. But Boeing has decided that effort is premature.

Spokeswoman Sandy Angers said Thursday the study team has been absorbed into the broader product-development unit and has shifted from specific airplane designs.

Instead, Boeing is focused on finding technologies that might provide performance improvements of 15 to 20 percent that are demanded by airlines to justify launching a new jet.

"We've reduced our airplane-design effort and are focusing more on the technology breakthroughs," said Angers. "We need technology breakthroughs in engines, aerodynamics, materials and other systems.

"You can't simply shrink the 787 and expect the same benefits for the narrow-body market," Angers said. "We've got difficult challenges."

The use of a 787-style composite plastic material, for example, won't offer as big a weight improvement on a much smaller jet.

Angers wouldn't pin down a new target date for the 737's replacement beyond "the latter half of the next decade," but delivery to airlines could now be closer to 2020 than the previously anticipated 2015.

In an interview Tuesday with aviation analyst Scott Hamilton, Airbus' chief operating officer and top salesman, John Leahy, cited 2020 as the likely delivery date for a replacement of the rival A320 jet family.

The A320 and the 737 divide the narrow-body market. A program to replace one of those with a new model is expected to trigger replacement of the other.

The 737 is Boeing's best-selling jet with just over 5,700 delivered to date. With almost 2,200 more on firm order, the production schedule is full well into 2014.

Hamilton, of Leeham.net, said pushing out the 737 replacement could mean Boeing would first upgrade its wide-body 777 to counter the threat from the Airbus A350 — either with significant enhancements to the 777 or with an all-new large airplane.

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In late 2005, Alan Mulally, then-chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said the company would develop a post-737 single-aisle jet to enter service between 2012 and 2015.

The next spring, he named top executive Mike Cave to head a 737-replacement study team.

Carolyn Brandsema, director of 737 engineering, was put in charge of developing the airplane and production concepts.

Last fall, Cave was promoted to a corporate position in Chicago.

Angers said Brandsema is back working on the current 737.

The shift in the study team's role was first reported this week in the trade magazine Aviation Week.

Addressing an audience of Wall Street analysts in Seattle on Wednesday, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson insisted the effort to develop a 737 replacement has not been abandoned, only pushed out to ensure that what results has a long market life.

"We're continuing our research effort until we find the right solution," Carson said.

"It has to be a 25-year product."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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