In times that flying is something that is already part of life, most of us simply do not pay that much attention in what we are flying. One segment of commercial airliners is dominant in the market, the narrow bodies. Today, flying in narrow body aircraft inevitably means flying in a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320.

Nice colored, sometimes even with artistic livery, modern interiors and other fancy details lead us to believe that these aircraft are modern and with state-of-the-art technology. Is this true? Unfortunately not. This does not mean that they are not good products, as in fact both of these best sellers are excellent aircraft. However, the technology of the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 with regards to airframe and systems is extremely dated, maybe with exception of some electronic systems that, in most cases, can be upgraded.

The Boeing 737, the most successful jet airliner today, entered service in 1968. The Airbus A320 is younger, having entered service in 1986. Do you remember the standard of cars (or perhaps buses) of those years? How would you feel traveling today in a car dating back to 1968 or 1986? You would certainly feel better in a modern car, or not? But the reality is that there are no other options on the market, simply these two.

For Boeing and Airbus, they are money makers, with non recurring costs (development and tooling) paid many, many times. Just to have an idea, for this category of aircraft, the manufacturers would consider, for planning, a series from 150 to 250 aircraft (the breakeven point). After selling the number of aircraft that pay these non recurring costs, the aircraft is profitable. Approximately 6,700 Boeing 737s and 4,500 Airbus A320s have being manufactured. More 2,000 of each have already being sold. 

Even with the pressure from airlines, who continually seek more efficient aircraft, this situation would last for ever provided other manufacturers did not enter the market. Figures are something close to twenty thousand aircraft for the next 20 years, considering replacement of old aircraft and fleet expansion. It is not a surprise that at least 3 manufacturers are launching products in this segment. A fourth may decide, no later than the third quarter of 2011, if it will also enter the race for the estimated 200 billion dollars that this segment will represent.



With exception of a few old MD series aircraft still in service (production of which finished in 1999) or its successor – Boeing 717 - with the last aircraft delivered in 2006, we fly Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s for 70% of all commercial flights. Both present very similar performance and operational cost.





The first flight was in 1967. Different versions can carry from 130 to 215 passengers. In 1980 Boeing introduced a CFM56 turbo fan engine and made mayor changes on the wing and interior. 1990 saw the launching of the B737 Next Generation, with changes on wing, cockpit and interior. More than 6,000 were produced and an order book of more than 2,000.was compiled. Will be produced for another 15 years.


AIRBUS A320 family



With its first flight in 1987, the aircraft that compose this family (A318, A319, A320 and A321) carry from 107 to 220 passengers. There are two engine options and since the first member of the family was launched, no significant changes were made, just longer and smaller versions. Newer than the 737, it incorporates fly by wire systems and other technical items not available 20 years before its first flight. More than 4,500 produced and more 2,000 sold. Production will continue for the next 15 years.




Times of just two manufacturers offering equipment for the narrow body segment are coming to an end. This change is positive, as competition will result in more economic equipment, safer aircraft and, most important for passengers, more comfortable and environmentally friendly aircraft. What we will be seeing in the coming years:



There are two options on the table: a re-engined 737 with a new generation power plant, or a clean sheet design. Two engine manufacturers are promising engines with reduced fuel consumption and carbon emissions 15% lower. These options are the CFM International’s LEAP-X and the Pratt & Whitney’s PurePower PW1100G Geared Turbofan. Whether Boeing will decide for a new design or not, engines will be one of these options, maybe even the two.

For Boeing, the change of engines on the 737 poses a problem of ground clearance. As new generation engines have a larger fan diameter, current landing gear will have to be substantially modified or changed, with the natural implications on fuselage and wing structure.

At the moment there is a study team working on the possibility of a new design and our opinion is that this will be the best option. The original design is more than 40 years old. New technologies can be incorporated from other recent designs (Boeing 787) and, at the end, as Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker said recently, re-engine option is like “an old lady dressed up in new clothes". Boeing has more than 2,000 737 sold and even if a new design is launched, the current model will still be in production for the next 15 years.



The A320 NEO (New Engine Option) was launched recently, which means that the European manufacturer opted for the cheapest and fastest solution.  This decision may have been driven by the competitors entering the market (specifically the Bombardier CSeries). Nevertheless the A320 airframe is newer than the Boeing 737 and a reasonable number of NEO A320’s have already been sold. Entry into service is planned for 2016. Resuming: no new Airbus narrow body in the next years (again, except if there is a complete change in the market).

The A320 NEO will be offered with two engine options (CFM LEAP-X and the Pratt & Whitney’s PW1100G Geared Turbofan) and will incorporate winglets that the manufacturer claims will reduce in 3.5% the fuel consumption. The basic airframe and systems will be the same of current A320. Similarly to the Boeing 737, Airbus also has more than 2000 A320 aircraft sold and both the current as the NEO version will be produce for years. The words of Akbar Al Baker are valid for this case also.

Bombardier CSeries

 Launched on 2008, after previous tentative launch in 2004, The CSeries is a complete new design that will incorporate advanced materials (24% Aluminium Lithium, 46% composite materials) and the new generation PW1000G geared turbofan. Being a new design, this aircraft will have significant improvements over present designs, like low cabin altitude, large windows and big overhead bins. For the crew it incorporates advanced electronic avionic systems for navigation, communications, maintenance, etc.

Passenger capacity, for the versions planed, will cover the range from 100 to 149 passengers and, at the moment, Bombardier discarded stretched versions. Bombardier claims the aircraft will consume 20% less fuel than equivalent aircraft and maintenance costs will be 20% less.

Entry into service will be in 2013 and Lufthansa will be the first airline to receive the CSeries aircraft.



 A new player in the market is coming with the COMAC (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China) C919. The design resembles the A320 aircraft and will be offered in versions from 130 to 190 passengers. Engines were not selected yet and it seems that the airframe will be a conventional design, as no high-tech features were announced by the manufacturer. The competitive attraction of the aircraft, as said by COMAC, will be the price and an efficiency improvement of 15% compared to current 737 and A320. As many airlines complain about prices imposed by Airbus and Boeing, we believe that the C919 will have a good market share, not only in China. Engines will also be new generation fuel efficient ones. How the manufacturer will support the product outside Asia is yet to be seen. Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier have already an established network of service centers worldwide. Airlines from China and two lessors have already ordered the aircraft. Entry into service is scheduled for 2016.

Irkut MS-21

 With the experience of traditional names like Yakovlev, Sukhoi, Beriev, Ilyushin, Mikoyan, and Tupolev, Irkut will offer the market a serious competitor. The models that will make up the MS-21 family will have a capacity from 150 to 212 passengers, competing head-to-head with current players. In terms of technology, the aircraft will have a composite wing designed by Sukhoi, fly-by-wire flight controls, advanced avionic systems and other technologies that could be found only on western designs. The MS-21 will be powered by the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G, providing significant reduction in fuel consumption compared with what powers 737’s and A320’s today.

An extensive program of collaboration with traditional suppliers will make the aircraft a serious contender, not only for the Russian market but also worldwide. What is still to be seen is how Irkut will handle the after sales support. The collaboration with western companies certainly aid product support, mainly for the systems.

More than 150 units have already been sold and entry into service is scheduled for 2016.



The Brazilian manufacturer will be another important player, if it decides to enter the market and, finally, compete with Airbus and Boeing. A decision to enter this profitable market has to be made soon, in order to have the new jet available at around 2016, as the C919 and the MS-21. Embraer is capable of developing a serious competitor for this market, as they have already demonstrated with their commuter and business jets.

As done for their ERJ 145 and ERJ 170/190 aircraft, possible partnerships will reduce their investment and man power needs.

Embraer is developing the KC-390, a medium military transport with similar payload and dimensions of a narrow body. If they decide to go ahead with a new design in this class, some commonality, mainly is systems, will reduce costs and development time 





All manufacturers have a price list for their products. The price list is a reference for a typical product in a typical configuration. Airlines and lessors negotiate their acquisitions case by case and discounts are common for contracts involving a significant number of aircraft. . The acquisition of aircraft is not simple, as spare parts, training of flight and ground personal, interior configurations, engine options, cabin interior and electronic systems are diverse for each client. The values presented here are a reference.


Airbus A320

A reference price for an A320 is US$ 85 million. Smaller members of the family (A318 and A319) have a lower price and the larger A321 is costing around US$100 million. The NEO series will cost an additional US$ 6 to US$ 6.5 million, approximately.


Boeing 737

The most common versions of the 737 are the 737-600 with a price of US$ 57 million, the 737-700 costing US$ 68 million and the 737-800 by US$ 80 million.



Bombardier announced that its new aircraft will be costing US$ 55 million for the CS100 with 100 seats and US$ 63 million for the larger CS300 with 130 seats.


Comac C919 and Irkut MS-21

These manufacturers have not yet presented their price list but values are arguably already defined, at least for the first units, as both have already announced sales of their models. It is to expect that their prices will be around 10 to 15% less than an equivalent capacity Airbus or Boeing.




Airbus estimated that 17900 narrow bodies will be absorbed by the market over the next 20 years. The value is estimated as US$1,274 billion.

Boeing forecast is more optimistic, with sales close to 21,200 aircraft, also over the next 20 years.

The narrow body segment is expected to represent 70% of the total number of commercial aircraft sales, also considering a 20 years time frame.


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Article written on March 2011.

Photos reproduced from Flightglobal/Airspace images

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