Podcast: Will There Ever Be A New Widebody?

As Russia pulls out of the CR929 and Airbus and Boeing sit on their hands, JetZero is showing that its radical new concept just might be for real. Aerodynamic Advisory's Richard Aboulafia joins Aviation Week's Joe Anselmo, Jens Flottau and Guy Norris to discuss.

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Rush Transcript

Joe Anselmo:

Welcome to Aviation Week's Check 6 Podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, Aviation Week's Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week magazine.

A half century after widebody passenger jets revolutionized aviation and made the long haul travel available to the masses, a major question is bubbling up. What's next? Airbus and Boeing are talking about launching new narrowbodies in the second half of the 2030s, but they're silent when it comes to wide bodies. And Russia has just pulled out of the one widebody development that was in the works, the Chinese-Russian CR929, throwing new doubts on that project. Joining us with their insights are Jens Flottau, our Executive Editor for Commercial Aviation, and Richard Aboulafia, an Aviation Week guest columnist and Managing Director at Aerodynamic Advisory.

One other wrinkle is a new disruptor. JetZero's plans to develop a blended wing-body military transport that could also serve as a 250-passenger airliner just took a big step forward. Senior Editor Guy Norris is here to talk about that. Jens, let's start off with you. How come there's no new widebodies on the drawing boards or that anyone's even talking about?

Jens Flottau:

Well, it's part of a broader picture, which has been started to be drawn in the past decade, I would say. The industry has learned that it can get away with re-engining existing platforms. On top of that, you have to see that it will be very, very hard to introduce new technology in widebodies in long haul flying, even more difficult in the narrowbody and short haul segment. And the industry is simply preoccupied with all these projects that they have in mind: Airbus talking about hydrogen aircraft for 2035, Airbus and Boeing talking about potentially doing new narrowbodies in the second half of the 2030s. Then all the current problems, supply chain, coming out of COVID, getting production up. There's simply no breathing room for long-term strategic views, and visions I should say. So yeah, widebodies are totally off the table for the time being.

Joe Anselmo:

And as I noted, the one widebody that was on the table was this joint Chinese-Russian project. Tell us about the new news there.

Jens Flottau:

Yeah, it's a bit ironic that neither Boeing and Airbus have been talking about new widebodies, but the one project that was there, or technically still is there, is the CR929.

It seems like it got caught up in the aftermath of the Ukraine War and the Western sanctions. It's not really clear what exactly has happened and in what sequence, but what we've learned is that Russia has pulled out of the joint venture that builds the CR929, or is about to do that. It's a long process. Russia still hopes to be a supplier on the program and I would assume that China will at least officially continue with it. It remains to be seen how realistic that is.

As far as Russia's participation in the program is concerned, I have a hard time imagining how that would work, just taking into account that Western suppliers are a big part of the program, particularly in the systems area, and I just simply cannot imagine any of the large Western suppliers being able to or allowed to participate in a program that will heavily rely on Russian components.

So not only is there a question mark, a big question mark, behind Russia's participation in the CR929, but also behind the project as such, as China now has to completely redefine this if they're serious about it. And the least that I think will happen is another big, big delay on the program and a complete redefinition that will be necessary.

Joe Anselmo:

Richard Aboulafia, you wrote a column for us earlier this summer where you noted that widebodies as a share of the aviation market have shrunk. Is the age of the widebody over?

Richard Aboulafia:

Well, let's just say that trends are heavily mitigating against it. Is it completely over? No, I doubt it. It's just that right now the business case for building a new one is just getting weaker and weaker. Once upon a time the backlog, for many years, the backlog and deliveries by value for both widebodies and single aisles were about the same. So, it was a 50-50 market and it's now, as I described in the column 70-30 in favor of narrowbodies, and that's before you really start to see the flood of [Airbus] A321neos delivered. Obviously you've got like 5,000 ordered and they're just starting to get the numbers flowing there. A lot of those jets are going to be taking over former widebody missions on the North Atlantic, intra Asia, Middle East, Europe, whatever else. So, we're just seeing this start to play out. It could be a 75-25 market at the end of the day when deliveries really ramp up on the 321neo and to a lesser extent the [Boeing] 737 MAX 10.

You get a real step change in cost reduction both in terms of capital cost and operating cost when you shift from a widebody to a single aisle, so it just stands to reason that as single aisles introduce these new capabilities in terms of range, they're going to be insanely popular for these international routes that were formerly the domain of widebodies. So widebodies aren't completely going away. They give you belly cargo, they give you, well, range if you want to do more than say around 4,400 nautical miles, and there are a lot of parts of the world where you can't get that single aisle replacement effect. But we're just digesting the impact of the rising tide of narrowbodies and therefore it would be, I think an act of madness for an OEM to start up a new widebody program given that environment.

Joe Anselmo:

An act of madness. Okay. So stated. The CR929, what are your thoughts on that? I mean Comac obviously went forward with the C919 and has brought that to market. Do you think we'll ever see a 929 widebody?

Richard Aboulafia:

It's going to be difficult. The idea of the 929 was sort of fraught from the beginning because the Chinese idea of a joint venture, say what you well about intellectual property rights in China, the idea is both sides contribute equal amounts and move forward together. The Russian idea of a JV has been pretty consistent. It's, "We have the intellectual property. You will pay for it," and therefore it's 100 to zero in terms of risk sharing. That was never going to work, and it hasn't. That's what killed the Su-57 FTFA joint venture with India. The Indians saying, "Wait, you just want us to pay for IP? That's the whole point of this. No, thank you."

Will the 929 happen under Chinese auspices? It's funny. Only two countries in the world on their own have ever built a widebody. One is the US and the other is the old Soviet Union. Europe was only able to do it by pooling their resources across borders. It's a tall order making that leap from single aisles to twins. Obviously they would also, given the sort of technological decoupling, particularly in aerospace between the West and China, China would also need a really good 60,000 pound or more thrust, high bypass turbo fan. Good luck with that. That's just as challenging as building a widebody. All this to say, my answer to your question is not for anytime soon, no.

Joe Anselmo:

Guy Norris, you broke the story earlier this year about the JetZero project using a very unconventional looking blended wing body (BWB), certainly not a tube and wings, and they have taken a big step forward. Tell us a little bit about that.

Guy Norris:

Yeah, thanks, Joe. To any of us in this business who've been writing about new airplanes for okay, three decades in some cases, the thought that we were going to not see something brand new come out in the 2020s was kind of disappointing. So, to me, I love the idea that we have this potential new kid on the block.

But obviously I have to, let's just go back to the basics and remind people of what this is. It's a California startup company, JetZero. They've announced this plan with the Defense Innovation Unit here in the US for a $235 million sort of kickoff contract that's going to cover a four-year development plan. Targeting first flight of this plan of 767/ A330- size demonstrator in early 2027. It's a massive ask, really. Northrop Grumman and its subsidiary, Scaled Composites, are going to be actually doing the spade work in getting this built. Pratt & Whitney geared turbofans are going to power it. So you've got a pretty impressive industrial team collaborating here on this. At the moment, of course, it's chicken feed as far as the real money that would be needed to build an actual viable new product in this range. But it's a start and I think it's building momentum and they've got the go ahead.

The intriguing thing about this is it's actually a widebody by default. This is really an airplane that is sort of essentially in that gray area that Boeing was looking at for the NMA between the large single-aisle, the 757, and the smaller midsize widebodies, the semi widebodies, 767. So it's kind of replacing something which you could have done in a single aisle concept. But going away from tube and wing by default means that you have to broaden the fuselage, it's integrated into the wing, and you create a wide body. In this case, something that's aimed at both a military tanker as you mentioned earlier and as an airliner.

So in the airliner role, you can't get away with a design like this with less than three aisles. You're going to end up maybe four aisles, that kind of configuration, and that's the new design that we're looking at. So I just think it's great that something like this is going to be attempted. We also have to remember that this is just an aerodynamic demonstrator too. It may be big, but that's exactly the whole point. They want to see if this works at scale. If it does, then that's when things get interesting, not only from the military application but for the potential commercial spinoff and the start of a new generation of going away from tube and wing.

So, it's all to play for really, I think. The key of course is that, and this is kind of to Richard's earlier point as well, is that there's a market opportunity here, which perhaps there wasn't in the past. The military needs a long-range tanker. The airlines need a sustainable new configuration that can really dig towards these 2050 net-zero carbon goals. And if somebody's going to break the mold, at the moment, it's not going to be Airbus because everybody's too busy, they've got so many other projects. It's not going to be Boeing because of all of the issues that we've talked about on this podcast many times. So collectively, I think you've looking at a window here and somebody's trying to make the most of it. We could talk forever about downrange what happens, whether BWB, this particular one is maybe bought up by somebody else when it's already done. I don't know, that's another discussion. But it's an exciting time.

Joe Anselmo:

Well, Richard is a hard guy to impress, and Richard, you actually think this venture might have legs.

Richard Aboulafia:

Yeah, I mean, just to echo exactly what Guy said, how could you not be excited by the prospect of something paradigm breaking, something that actually has lower than single aisle costs with twin-aisle or treble-aisle capabilities? I mean, that's really impressive innovation. I mean, you've got Boeing [CEO] Dave Calhoun, saying, "Oh no, nothing new this decade." That's great. You've got Airbus going straight to the bank with a completely mediocre jet that's just in the right place at the right time, the 321neo. It's not ideal, but it's all you can get in a very important size class, a fast growth market segment. Now here you've got somebody saying, "This is a fast growth market segment and we're going to introduce new fuel saving technology." How could you not be excited by that? Especially when there is, as Guy points out, this wonderful interplay with an important military requirement.

Joe Anselmo:

Guy, you heard Richard say that it would be an ‘act of madness’ for Airbus or Boeing to launch a clean sheet wide-body. Do the engine makers feel that way or could we see some movement on that front if the airframers stand pat?

Guy Norris:

Well, and this is to something that Jens said right at the beginning. The industry has become used to, in the single aisle business anyway, re-engining as a way of bringing forward generational change and making sure that you actually get double-digit fuel burn reductions with each of these moves. And I think there's no reason why we shouldn't see this happen with the widebodies too, especially the new generation. They have all the capability that you would need for a large high bypass ratio, turbofan, there's plenty of room under the wing. And of course, we saw how Airbus benefited in that capability over Boeing because of the difference in the A320 versus the 737 in terms of the size under the wing.

Now in the widebody world, we've already seen this in earlier generations. Remember the 747 also went through three generations of re-engining. So it's not unheard of to have seen this in the past. So, I think what you're looking for now is who are the players who've got the most to gain from trying to do this?

I mean, Airbus and Boeing, as we've discussed, are not in a position, the act of madness, as Richard says, to even think about anything in terms of new airframes right now. But the engine makers, they need this. They need to have a future in the big markets. Obviously, GE has got its game plan set following 777X, but they'll need more too. They've got these programs that are like NASA's high tech program, for example, looking at powerful, small, miniaturized core technology. There's nothing to say that that sort of development can’t be increased in scale conversely to a larger application. At the moment, everything's targeting single aisles, but that technology is just as applicable if you combine it with other architectural changes to bigger engines.

Course through the RISE program, which CFM is working, the GE-Safran company, they're also looking at the geared architecture, which Pratt introduced with the GTF. And then across the Atlantic, of course, Rolls-Royce is desperate for a home for an UltraFan. As we know, Rolls-Royce has its back against the wall after its terrible few years with COVID and the Trent 1000 problems, but under its new CEO, they're looking to bounce back, and fundamentally they totally believe in that architecture. And despite Brexit, the European Clean Aviation Program, the pan-European joint research and development program is very much behind UltraFan. So Airbus ultimately knows that it's going to do flight testing. It supports that program. Whether GE is a future player in that with maybe a new architecture in the 2030s, I can't imagine they're not looking at it.

And of course, the last thing I should say about all of these is that every single one of these programs will be adaptable to burn hydrogen as well, because that's a combustor technology that they're all looking at. They have to. So, whether you think liquid hydrogen is going to be a factor with widebodies, I'm not sure it ever would be, but certainly the architectural concept is being preserved. They've got the option. Yeah, I think re-engining is the way that we'll see the next evolution take place.

Joe Anselmo:

Jens, I'd like you to take us to the finish line. Guy just brought up sustainability. You and I were talking yesterday and you noted that just 10% of flights are longer than 3,000 kilometers, but that 10% accounts for 60% of aviation emissions. Not exactly a good selling point, is it?

Jens Flottau:

Yeah. That's based on a Eurocontrol paper that they published this week. Long-haul flying is the real problem as far as decarbonization is concerned and all of what we’ve talked about shows that progress is going to be very, very hard. Re-engining, yes, you get another 10, 20% if you're lucky, but is that going to be enough to decarbonize the industry? No way. Plus, that Eurocontrol study, which I highly recommend reading, is going through all the new technologies that are out there: hydrogen, battery, even solar propulsion. And unsurprisingly, it comes to the conclusion that any of these are completely unrealistic for decades to come. So we're back to re-engining. We're back to simply re-fleeting. There's so many 20, 25-year-old aircraft out there. Some airlines are still flying A340s, believe it or not, that need to be taken out as soon as possible just from an environmental perspective.

Joe Anselmo:

Okay. Jens, Richard, Guy, thank you all for your time and insights. Unfortunately, we are out of time, but I'm sure we'll all be back to continue this conversation. That is a wrap for this week's Check 6 Podcast. A special thanks to our producer in London, Guy Ferneyhough. To our listeners, next week we will be taking our summer break, but Check 6 will return the first week in September. Until then, thank you for your time and enjoy the last days of summer.

Joe Anselmo

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.

Richard Aboulafia

Contributing columnist Richard Aboulafia is managing director at Aerodynamic Advisory. He is based in Washington.