A view of UA686 at Orlando. PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

Story Reported by Chris Sloan in Houston and James Field

HOUSTON & ORLANDO – United Airlines today launched the Boeing 737MAX9 into service, becoming only the second airline in the world (after Lion Air last month), and first in North America, to do so. Only eight MAX9s have been delivered around the world, with six of them belonging to United.

Today, United is launching services today from Houston initially to several destinations such as Anchorage, Austin, For Lauderdale and Orlando before adding ETOPS flights from Los Angeles to Honolulu.

The first flight, UA686, departed Houston at 0730 local time and arrived in Orlando just after 1030 local time. This  is the first new fleet member inducted into United since 2012 when United launched their 787 from Houston. The 737MAX9 was launched from Houston as well, with the most of the new MAX fleet based here at the beginning.

N67501, the 737MAX9 that performed the inaugural revenue flight between Houston and Orlando seen at Gate C2 at IAH. Photo: Chris Sloan.

“The Boeing 737 MAX is a great addition to United’s fleet, providing approximately 14 per cent fuel efficiency compared to previous 737 generations and an improved customer experience onboard,” said Rodney Cox, vice president of United’s Houston operation. “As we begin the busy summer travel season, Houston is happy to be home for United’s first MAX aircraft, as we launch the initial 737 MAX service from here, and later this month, add MAX service on flights from Houston to L.A., Sacramento and Tampa.”

United expects to receive up to 10 Boeing 737MAX9s this year from Boeing and will continue to implement the new aircraft onto either new or existing routes within their US network. United has firm orders for 60 more 737-9s and 100 737 Max 10s, which were announced at last years’ Paris Air Show. The carrier currently has six of the MAX 9 delivered already which have been used for training purposes for the crew to get used to the new type.

Two of the of the six MAX’s to be deployed began flights today in an ambitious schedule for an entry-into-service. Out of the six aircraft, five are expected to be based at Houston and one will be based at LAX to serve their Honolulu route. From today up until June 29th, the 737MAX9’s will be deployed on the following routes:

Scheduled Boeing 737 MAX 9 Service 
Date United Hub Destination Depart Arrive
June 7 Houston (IAH) Anchorage (ANC) 2:40 p.m. 6:58 p.m.
June 7 Houston (IAH) Austin (AUS) 10:25 a.m. 11:15 a.m.
June 7 Houston (IAH) Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) 2:20 p.m. 5:52 p.m.
June 7 Houston (IAH) Orlando (MCO) 7:35 a.m. 10:38 a.m.
June 7 Houston (IAH) Orlando (MCO) 2:50 p.m. 6:19 p.m.
June 29 Los Angeles (LAX) Honolulu (HNL) 11:05 a.m. 2:00 p.m.
June 29 Los Angeles (LAX) Houston (IAH) 8:15 a.m. 1:37 p.m.
June 29 Los Angeles (LAX) Houston (IAH) 1:00 a.m. 6:14 a.m.
June 29 Houston (IAH) Los Angeles (LAX) 7:45 a.m. 9:23 a.m.
June 29 Houston (IAH) Los Angeles (LAX) 9:35 p.m. 10:59 p.m.
June 29 Houston (IAH) Sacramento (SMF) 9:50 p.m. 11:27 p.m.
June 29 Houston (IAH) Tampa (TPA) 2:50 p.m. 6:02 p.m.
June 29 Houston (IAH) Tampa (TPA) 7:50 a.m. 10:59 a.m.

The United Boeing 737 MAX 9s feature a seating capacity of 179 passengers, including 20 United First Class Zodiac seats in a 2-2 configuration offering 37 inches of seat pitch, 48 in Economy Plus in a 3-3 configuration with 34 inches of pitch, and 111 United Economy seats, designed by Rockwell Collins in a 3-3 configuration with at least 30 inches of pitch.

The 737MAX has not been popular with everyone – particularly United competitor American’s passengers and crew owing to the small galleys, tight lavatories, and densified cabin via reduced pitch in First and Economy – adding two rows of seating in Economy. However, United has not adopted a densified cabin in terms of reducing seat pitch for its MAX over its current 737 Next Generation Cabin. The slimline seats do allow for additional rows, however.  While American is retrofitting their 737 fleets to match the 737MAX with Project Oasis. United, at this point, is not retrofitting the MAX 9 configuration to their existing 737 fleet.

Passengers of United Airlines who get the chance to experience the MAX9 will have access to in-seat power outlets (two per three seats in Economy and one per seat in First), as well as purchasable satellite Wi-Fi from ViaSat. As is becoming the rule, there are no embed inflight entertainment screens (IFE) nor DirecTV Live TV that is found on legacy Continental metal.  United has opted for a personal device entertainment system dubbed United Private Screening which enables customers to stream movies and television programs for free on their electronic devices. Unlike American, United is not yet removing embedded IFEs from its current so equipped 737 fleet.

The 737MAX is United’s first aircraft type to use Viasat next-generation satellite Wi-Fi, providing access to faster, more reliable internet connections on a gate-to-gate basis with speeds averaging 14mb upstream and .5mb downstream per passenger – easily enough to stream video such as Netflix and YouTube. The carrier plans to expands ViaSat to the rest of the new MAX fleet but hasn’t confirmed whether it will be retrofitted to other existing aircraft in the fleet.


PHOTO: Chris Sloan.

Today’s inaugural was the first of eight flights taking place from Houston. Airways was onboard the first of eight flights, flight 836  to Orlando. N67501, the first 737MAX 9 delivered to UA, was  our steed for today. The aircraft was ferried and delivered to United in Houston back in April 2018 where it has conducted training flights up until this point. The event started with a low key welcome ceremony, with Gates C1 and  C2 being set up with decorations and signage to celebrate this new milestone for the airline. There was a healthy contingent of United employees, MileagePlus members, press, and AvGeeks assembled at the very early hour of 6AM.

Prior to boarding, we were given airside access and a closer look at one of the MAX9s. The special swoop cheatline livery also found on United’s 787 stood out on the well proportioned aircraft. Registered N27503, this aircraft would operate today’s Houston-Austin-Houston-Anchorage-Houston service:

Inaugural Flight Report – UA686

Flight Number: UA686

Aircraft: Boeing 737MAX9 (7M9)

Registration: N67501

Departure Airport: Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

Arrival Airport: Orlando International Airport (MCO)

Departure Time: 7:54AM (Local Time)

Arrival Time: 10:51AM (Local Time)

Total Flight Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

Pilots in Command: Captain Chris Norton and First Officer Matthew Borgis

Seat Number: 2A


Instead of relying on senior management for the small ceremony Mel Cruz, a United Airlines Customer Service Rep did the honors: “As you may have noticed, today’s flight is a special one. That’s because today, United is beginning service on a brand new Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft! United is the first North American carrier to operate the Boeing 737 MAX 9, and because today is our first scheduled service, you all have the pleasure of being some of our first passengers onboard”. It shows how invested not just the airline executives are invested in this new type, but also the workers throughout the structure of the company.

Boarding began at approximately 7 am at Gate C2. When we boarded, there was a certificate handed to us to say that I took part in the first inaugural revenue flight onboard the United 737MAX9, which I thought was a nice touch to the flight. We were also given some little bits of swag such as UA 737 MAX branded headphones and cookies. Passengers under the age of eighteen were given 737 MileagePlus miles.

As I made it to my assigned seat, 1A, I noticed the attractive new United bulkhead branding, not dissimilar to the Polaris equipped 777 fleet. The entire cabin, bathed in blue and grey, conveys an attractive though conservative appearance that is an aesthetic step up over the desperately monotone American 737 MAX. The huge new 737MAX Boeing SpaceBin overhead oversized baggage bins were very well received and sped up boarding too boot.

The cabin crew seemed quite excited, but unusual for an inaugural none were aware they were flying a MAX until arriving at the airport. Adding to the activity were four Flight Attendant trainees supplementing the standard crew. With most of the guests headed for Orlando theme park vacations jockeying with picture taking AvGeeks, the former must have been quite surprised at the occasion.

The fully-loaded flight pushed back from Gate C2 on-time at 0733 local and taxied to the active runway for departure.

Departure, Climb and Cruise

UA686 departed Houston at 7:54 am local time and climbed out into the direction of Orlando. The departure was very smooth and slow, especially with the flight being at maximum capacity. The 55-second take-off roll  was very quiet due to the signature quiet GE LEAP engines. There was no applause and unusually no announcements during the entire flight marking the occasion. Once onboard, the flight was completely well run and routine, with perhaps was the point.

In-flight IFE from an iPhone X using ViaSat technology. Picture: Chris Sloan.

When on the cruise, I tested out the in-flight Wi-Fi and its streaming capabilities. I was able to stream Netflix perfectly. I was able to live stream via Facebook to see how it all works with the quality being understandably low due to the low ping and upload speeds, but at least I was able to do something that would be impossible on a GoGo ATG first generation service.

As Zach Honig tested internet speeds, the download tested significantly higher than that of the upload, by up to 14x faster between the two, with the ping being a several couple hundred ms, meaning that the connection would be slow initially but the speed will ultimately offset such a lag. In-flight, download was recorded at around 15mbps, with upload at around 0.42mbps. Connection to the masts via ping was logged at around 600ms.

I found the Zodiac First Class seats quite comfortable, if a little firm. The ergonomics with the easily accessible water bottle storage and power access were appreciated. I sampled the Rockwell Collins Economy slimline seats and found them firm as well , but tolerable. The personal entertainment device (PED) holders proved very useful in all classes.

There is no bulkhead divider between First and Economy, just a visor and curtain. The downside is the loss of intimacy and exclusivity in First, as well as the First Class lavatory constantly being used by economy passengers in the back even with a mid cabin Economy lavatory. I realize these are first world problem. On the upside, with the absence of  the divider, the first row (row seven) of Economy Plus boasts added legroom and under-seat storage. Unfortunately, the lavatory is located directly opposite which will irk some who have booked these seats.

The major disappointment of the cabin were the four minuscule lavatories. The sink was very narrow and thin, meaning that whenever you turned the tap on to dispense water, it would spray all over the floor, yourself and even as far as the door. These diminutive lavatories on new 737 MAX and A320neos have become a pain point for passengers.

For everyone, however the quieter cabin noise levels of the 737MAX are noticeable, even in the rear cabin. This is perhaps the most appreciated passenger experience leap of the MAX, along with the supersized overhead bins.

Descent, Approach and Landing

We commenced our descent at around 10:15 local time into Orlando, with the first initial descent from 33,000 to 27,000 feet. At this point, the cabin crew were just finalizing their service before the descent continued into Orlando. It started off as a very steady descent into Orlando, with a couple of bumps along the way as we dodged around the typical Central Florida thunderstorm buildups . The last final checks were made as we continued our descent even lower into the Orlando area, meeting the airport on a downwind leg. The descent path of the aircraft took us onto a very light right turn to line up with the ILS at Orlando, making it a very uneventful but smooth descent overall.

We continued our approach into Orlando, with what felt like a straight-in approach and touched down nicely at around 1051 local time, around two minutes earlier than scheduled.. Total flight time was two hours and eight minutes, which is not far off the average of an hour and 55 minutes in-flight. Upon arrival into our gate, there was no water cannon salute to celebrate although there were rampers and customer service agents taking pictures from the Jetway of the gate that was assigned to the aircraft.

Though the airline could have done itself a favor and taken a well earned bow with more in the way of hoopla, the MAX era began successfully at United. From a fuel efficiency, environmental, connectivity, and financial standpoint, the skies did indeed just get a little more friendly.