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Tuesday, February 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boeing still up in air about successor to 737

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Before the 5,000th 737 rolled out Monday in Renton, speculation had mounted Boeing could launch a replacement single-aisle-jet development program toward the end of the decade.

But 737 production may go on long enough to reach much greater heights. Ongoing Boeing studies have so far failed to produce a decisive reason to launch a replacement.

"It is a very high hurdle," said Randy Baseler, Boeing's vice president for marketing, throwing cold water on the notion a 737 replacement program could begin soon after the wide-body 787 enters service in 2008.

In a December interview, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Alan Mulally said a 737 replacement could be in service between 2012 and 2015.

Baseler implied any 737 replacement would enter service later in the window cited by Mulally, rather than sooner.

The decision is eagerly awaited and will have enormous ramifications in this region. Will it be assembled here? (Mulally strongly hinted yes.) If so, in Renton or in Everett? (Unclear.)

First, Boeing has to decide when to act.

Initial studies of the issue have produced disappointing results. At an industry conference in January in Dublin, Ireland, Baseler showed a slide listing the hurdles that have to be cleared and concluded: "Someday the 737 and [rival Airbus] A320s will be replaced, but so far we have not found a compelling replacement."

Baseler said the speculation about an early launch is fueled by the sales success of the 787 and the expectation that Boeing could simply transfer that jet's technology breakthroughs — its light composite airframe and fuel-efficient engines — to a smaller jet.

Not so fast, said Baseler. He said the main advantage of the lighter 787 airframe is an extra 2,000-mile range, a huge advantage for an intercontinental jet. But 737s are used for shorter routes and simply don't need more range than they have now.

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That leaves fuel consumption, operating cost, production cost — and therefore price — as the key areas for gains.

A report last week from industry publication Flight International, citing information from suppliers, said both Airbus and Boeing have found that applying the new technology improvements in the small-jet category would reduce fuel consumption around 4 percent and operating costs 3 percent.

That's not good enough to trigger a Boeing investment of possibly $5 billion.

The hurdle is higher because the 737, as well as the A320, are such efficient airplanes. For an airline like Southwest to switch from 737s would require a big infrastructure and training investment. There has to be compelling economic gain.

The 777 succeeded because of the big efficiency advance in moving from four engines to two on a large airplane. The 787 ignited market interest with a promise of 20 percent fuel savings and that extra 2,000-mile range.

What innovation might deliver a similar kick-start for a 737 replacement? Boeing is still looking.

Baseler pointed to Mulally's apparently off-the-cuff remarks about a 737 replacement in Paris last June. Mulally raised the possibility that because of a shift to production of very large composite fuselage sections, Boeing might offer more than one fuselage size when it next launches a jet.

"We could do three different fuselages. Five abreast; six abreast; we could even do a twin-aisle," Mulally said. "We're looking at all those opportunities."

Those comments may be little more than what Flight International calls the "smoke and mirrors" that both Boeing and Airbus use to obscure their future intentions. Each company discourages speculation that its cash-cow single-aisle jet might soon be terminated.

Only one thing is clear: The 737 will be a hard act to follow.

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

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