MIAMI — As the Boeing 737 MAX is about to carry out its maiden voyage, Airways takes a look at the history of the program, which officially launched with Boeing’s Board of Directors giving the go ahead on August 30, 2011.
About a decade ago, Boeing started to work on the development of a clean-sheet replacement for the Boeing 737. The project, known as Project Yellowstone (Y1), was devised as a a smaller version of the 787 Dreamliner, boasting a carbon fiber fuselage and double aisle. in 2011, the project was finally shelved for various reasons, including being unable to find a feasible method to scale down the carbon fiber fuselage. Although, Boeing intends to have a clean-sheet replacement for the Boeing 737 by 2030.
In 2010, Boeing’s competitor Airbus decided to go ahead with its A320neo program. The ‘neo’ suffix stands for “new engine option”, which brings two new engine models produced by Pratt & Whitney and CFM, and also includes upgrades to the current A320ceo (current engine option) which is intended to replace. The program posed a threat to the future of the Boeing 737 program, especially as Airbus received positive feedback from its customers. The program definitely increased the pressure on Boeing.
The 737 Goes Back to the Drawing Board
The manufacturer realized that airlines wanted more fuel efficiency above anything else. So, the decision was made to make upgrades to the Boeing 737 Next-Generation, from which the MAX would be devised with three variants: the 737 MAX 7, 737 MAX 8 and 737 MAX 9. These are based on the 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900, all of them variants of the current 737 Next-Generation family aircraft.
Among the proposed improvements to the 737 MAX included a new powerplant, selecting the new CFM LEAP-1B engine, together with new split-scimitar winglets, an evolved design of the current blended winglets by Aviation Partners. According to Boeing, the 737 MAX will burn about 20 percent less fuel compared to the first 737 Next-Generation aircraft, and that it will have an eight percent lower operating costs when compared to the Airbus A320neo family, largely attributed to the proposed fuel burn savings and maintenance advantages.
Immediately after the approval of the MAX program, there were doubts as to how committed Boeing was to it. At the time of the announcement, only one customer was announced although Boeing previously reported that it had 700 firm orders from nine different customers. All doubts were blown away when Southwest Airlines announced the placement of a firm order for 150 737 MAX 8 aircraft, as well as options for 150 more on December 13, 2011.
The following month, Norwegian Air Shuttle announced an order of 100 737 MAX 8 aircraft. 2012 was a good start to the MAX as Lion Air announced a major order for 201 737 MAX 9 aircraft, and lately AeroMexico, Alaska Airlines, GOL, United, and a few other airlines placed additional orders.
2013 was another big year of orders for the program; Boeing received orders from Air Canada, American Airlines, flyDubai, Icelandair, Turkish, WestJet, and a few leasing companies. Plus in July, Boeing completed the final configuration for the 737 MAX 8, and it launched the 737 MAX 7 variant with Southwest Airlines as launch operator.
There were also a number of orders for the MAX in 2014; Ethiopian, Monarch, and a few other airlines placed orders for the MAX. In September, Boeing announced that it would offer a high density version of the 737 MAX 8 which was dubbed the 737 MAX 200, launched by Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair. The variant will be able to seat up to 200 passengers in a single-class cabin, while keeping cost per seat below 20% when compared to the existing 737 models.
Later in the fall, Boeing announced that the production of the first MAX components were under construction at the manufacturer’s Fabrication Integrated AeroStructures in Auburn, Washington. The fuselage stringers, which run along the fuselage to provide stability and strength, were shipped to Boeing’s partner Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kansas, where the all the variants of the 737 MAX fuselages will be built.
Taking the 737 to the MAX
2015 was an even greater year for the program. At the very end of May 2015, Boeing started the assembly of the wings for its first 737 MAX right on schedule at its Renton factory. The wing assembly is considered to be the official first step in the building of any aircraft.
The wing load began began in Boeing’s new Panel Assembly Line (PAL), which itself opened just a few months earlier to replace the original system dating back to the 737 program launch in the 1960s. With an assembly daily rate of eight panels—currently at 75% of automation—each upper and lower wing skin panels will require 2,500 fasteners to be completed. Four wings are produced each day with 84 per month.
On August 13, 2015, Spirit Aerosystems rolled out the first fuselage, and it was then delivered by rail to Boeing’s final assembly facility in Renton, Washington. Spirit Aerosystems produces approximately 70 percent of the Boeing 737 structure, including fuselage, pylon, thrust reversers and engine nacelles.
About a month later and right on schedule, the first Boeing 737 MAX entered into the Final Assembly Stage, just as Airbus opened up its new A320 Final Assembly Line in Mobile, Alabama. The MAX is being built on a third surge production line in Renton. Boeing had to reconfigure the floor space at the factory to make room for this new line, in order to not to interrupt the current 737NG production.
Unlike the main two lines, the surge line is not a moving line. Progressively, the MAX will be merged into the existing two lines as the 737NGs phase out, but depending on the demand and the increased production rate to 52 per month, the temporary line could become permanent.
Quietly, on November 30, the first 737 MAX aircraft rolled off the assembly line to the paint hangar, exactly on the day scheduled four years before, and on December 2, the first Boeing 737 MAX was rolled out.
During the roll out ceremony, Keith Leverkuhn, vice president and general manager, 737 MAX, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, explained: “Today marks another in a long series of milestones that our team has achieved on time, per plan, together. With the rollout of the new 737 MAX–the first new airplane of Boeing’s second century–our team is upholding an incredible legacy while taking the 737 to the next level of performance.”
Since the rollout, the aircraft, named 1A001, has been undergoing pre-flight preparation and testing. After type certification, it will go to launch customer Southwest Airlines in the third quarter of 2017. The next two aircraft are currently in the final assembly stage, with a 4th aircraft entering soon.
The program will be over 50 years old by the time the MAX enters service with Southwest, making it the longest running and best selling airliner of all times. To date, more than 8,888 737s have been built since it took to the skies for the first time in 1967.
On January 22, Boeing announced that the 737 MAX flight testing window would open on January 29, depending on the weather conditions.
To date, Boeing has received more than 3,000 orders for the MAX, with 60 orders for the MAX 7, about 1,700 for the MAX 8 and more than 400 for the MAX 9, with about 660 orders which have not specified the variant so far.