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Are Boeing and Airbus approaching a name crisis? For Boeing, the “crisis” is acute. After a 60-year run of 7XX-series aircraft starting with the 707, only the 797 name has yet to be assigned. Airbus too is running out of A3XX names for its popular jetliners. If the aircraft consortium sticks with the same nomenclature, only the A360, A370, and A390 names still remain.
Of course, an aircraft maker doesn’t have to stick with a naming scheme, no matter how much brand equity it has. Airbus purchased a majority stake in the CSeries program in October 2017. The CSeries is a family of narrow-body twin-jets designed and built by Bombardier Aerospace of Canada. Through the magic of ‘badge engineering’, the CSeries is now known officially as the Airbus A220 family. Boeing tried similar rebranding in 1997, as the MD-95 regional jet became the Boeing 717 after Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas.
Although 99.99% of us will never actually buy a jetliner, it’s still a shock to realize that airliners are branded and marketed as carefully as cars, candy bars, and cough medicine.
Airbus has been rocking the A3XX nomenclature since 1967, when work began on the A300, often called the world’s first twin-jet wide-bodied aircraft. Airbus went on to build the A310, the widely popular A320 and A321 twin-jets, the A330, the A340, and ultimately the four-engine A380 super-jumbo and the A350 long-range wide-bodied twin-jet. Its success has left it with only three currently unfilled A3XX slots: A360, A370 and A390.
According to an Airbus spokesperson, there are currently no Airbus A360, A370, or A390 programs underway “nor plans at this time to employ” these monikers. However, the spokesperson noted that “the A3XX (and now A2XX) naming conventions is widely accepted as an Airbus brand and legally protected, though it would be premature for us to begin speculating about possible uses for future aircraft. “
When Airbus was considering a name for the super-jumbo originally called A3XX, it did what any manufacturer does before launching a product: it conducted market research. An article claims that Airbus immediately eliminated the number 7 [as in A370] as it was “so closely associated with rival Boeing” and its 7XX series. Interestingly, as an Airbus source confirmed, the A380 name was eventually selected because, in cross-section, the fuselage resembles the digit 8. The number 8 is considered a special number in Asian cultures, a key target market for the A380.
Oddly, “some have associated the A370 nomenclature with a series of patents and patent applications filed by Airbus in the 2005-2010 timeframe for various tri-jet designs.” As for the A390, according to this less-than-authoritative article, it is purported to be a six-engine, three deck airliner capable of flying 1000 people.
The numbers game at Boeing goes back even further, as it 707 flew its first commercial flight with since-departed Pan American World Airways almost 60 years ago, on October 26, 1958. The 707 was followed by the successful 727 tri-jet, the twin-engine 737, one of the most popular commercial jet airliners ever built, and the iconic 400-seat 747 four-engine jumbo jet. It was followed by a generation of twin-jet wide-bodies, including the 757, 767 and the 777, the world’s largest twinjet. In recent years the 777 has been joined by its even longer-range twin-jet sibling, the 787 Dreamliner.
The line’s longevity leaves just one uncommitted 7XX name, the 797. Boeing has discussed a potential replacement for the aging 767, the so-called New Midsize Aircraft. The twin-jet NMA will largely be made from composite materials, seat 200 to 270 and have a range of up to 5,000 nautical miles, according to Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Kevin McAllister
But so far, the NMA has not been re-named 797. As a spokesperson put it, “We have not given the NMA a numeric designator at this point, despite ongoing media speculation. We have taken the appropriate steps to consider a variety of designations for now and into the future but will choose the time to announce our intentions when it best meets our business needs.”
Of course, Boeing doesn’t have to use the last 7XX name on the NMA, when and if it arrives. For example, from 1958 to 1967, the company produced and sold the Boeing 720. Despite the name, it had no relation to the far more popular 727 (a narrow-bodied tri-jet) but was, in fact, a variant of the 707, as a four-engine narrow-body medium-range passenger jet airliner built in relatively small numbers.
The name game has a hallowed tradition for aircraft manufacturers. The Douglas Aircraft company delivered the one and only DC-1 in 1933, the year the original King Kong wreaked havoc on movie screens. The DC-1 was followed by the DC-2 and DC-3, one of the most successful commercial (and military) transport aircraft ever built. A long line of propeller and jet transports such as the DC-4 and DC-8 followed. The “DC” nomenclature continued through Douglas’ absorption into McDonnell Douglas in 1967 for aircraft like the DC-9 and DC-10. The name game only changed somewhat with the MD-11, a DC-10 variant built up to and after McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997.
As for possible future planes like an A390 or the Boeing 797, aircraft manufacturers, like Apple, say they won’t comment on unannounced products.
But that won’t stop the rest of us. Although the 797 has not been finalized, built, tested or even officially announced, irrepressible Ryanair Chief Executive officer Michael O’Leary says the low-cost airline won’t be buying the 797 as its cost per passenger mile is higher than Ryanair’s choice, the 737 MAX. O’Leary, whose airline has its own problems, sniffed, “We only want the most efficient and cheapest aircraft.”
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