MIAMI — On Tuesday morning in Renton, Washington, thousands of Boeing employees were on hand as the company introduced the very first of the fourth generation of its 737 — the 737 MAX, dubbed Spirit of Renton. With 2,955 orders from 60 customers as of press time, the 737 throughout its history is the world’s best-selling commercial aircraft.
The aircraft introduced this morning is painted in a Boeing’s MAX house livery, similar to the Dreamliner livery, but teal instead of blue. Registered 1A001, the aircraft will now undergo pre-flight preparation in the factory before departing for Renton to continue flight test readiness as it is the first of four MAX aircraft that will be used to test and certify the program with the FAA. After type certification, it will go to launch customer Southwest Airlines in the third quarter of 2017. MAX test aircraft 1A002 is nearly complete on the assembly line, and the wings for aircraft 1A003 sit on the line, ready to be joined with the fuselage in the days to come.
“Today marks another in a long series of milestones that our team has achieved on time, per plan, together,” said Keith Leverkuhn, vice president and general manager, 737 MAX, Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “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.”
The MAX is being built on a third production line in Renton, called a surge line. Boeing had to reconfigure their floor space at the factory to make room for this new line, in order not to interrupt current 737NG production. During a MAX assembly line tour on Monday morning, Boeing noted that 1A001 actually rolled off the assembly line to the paint hangar on November 30th, exactly the day scheduled four years ago. Boeing VP and General Manager, 737 MAX, Commercial Airplanes said, “The team has met all of the milestones that we had set for the program, including wing loading into the wing-body join, the fuselage on dock day, the wing-body join on time. Power on, on time. Culminating with rollout on time. Very proud of the team.”
At Tuesday morning’s ceremony, Leverkunh said, “Today marks another in a long series of milestones that our team has achieved on time, per plan, together. With the rollout if 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.”
Boeing says the MAX will burn 20 percent less fuel than first 737NGs, which were rolled out nineteen years ago this week, on December 2nd. Southwest was also the launch customer for the NG series, in this case the -700, taking delivery of their first -700 on December 17, 1997.
The stretched -900 series debuted in 2000, and eventually led to the end of 757 production, with Boeing saying that the -900 or the 787-8 could fill that mission gap. Meanwhile, Airbus’ stretched A321 is what many airlines are now choosing to replace their 757s, with domestic legacies like American and Delta both adding A321s. Many within the industry expect that Boeing is currently developing an enhanced 757-style derivative, what is tentatively called the NMA, or “Next Midsize Aircraft,” likely to be dubbed the 797 once it is officially on the market, entering service no earlier than 2022.
Boeing did have a clean sheet aircraft in development prior to the MAX, internally called Project Yellowstone, or Y1. Many thought it to be a sort of mini Dreamliner, with two aisles and a carbon fiber fuselage. However, Boeing shelved the project, partly due to being unable to feasibly scale down the carbon fiber fuselage technology.
The MAX-8 was launched by Boeing on August 30, 2011. Once again, Southwest Airlines was the launch customer, with an order for 200 aircraft, including options. Southwest also launched the MAX-7 in 2013 by converting existing -700NG orders to the MAX.
Improvements to the MAX include the new CFM LEAP-1B engine. Boeing says the MAX will have an 8 percent lower operating cost than Airbus’ A320neo family, thanks to fuel efficiency and maintenance advantages. This April rumors surfaced that the LEAP-1B was suffering from an underwhelming fuel burn performance of 4-5% during testing. The new split winglets on the MAX will save 1.8% more fuel than the current blended winglets by Aviation Partners, in service since 2004.
Airbus’ A320neo, equipped with Pratt and Whitney’s PW110G, received joint type certification from the EASA and FAA on November 24th, with the first customer delivery expected before year’s end, to Qatar Airways. The neo has received over 4,300 orders, from over 75 customers to date, giving it a 60 percent market share currently. But then again, the Airbus A320neo did come to market twenty months before the MAX.
What’s next for the MAX? Leverkunh said, “We’re going to be spending some time with the plane, getting it ready for its first flight in early 2016. We’re going to fly it low and slow to begin with, to make sure we understand the handling characteristics, to make sure what we modeled and what we saw in the wind tunnel are correct.” Next will come the flutter tests, where they test the dynamic response of the airplane. Boeing will go on to produce the MAX -7, -9 and MAX 200, which is a high-density seating configuration for the -8. A first flight date for the MAX has not been set, other than “early 2016.” Production and entry into service dates have not been announced for the programs following the -7.
It’s a bit unusual for Boeing to introduce an aircraft with such little fanfare. Here in Seattle, only a handful of media were on hand for what amounts to a photo op. At the official rollout ceremony, media are completely excluded, saving the event for Boeing employees only.
The 737NG is the most reliable commercial airplane flying today, making a big part of the testing program focused on reliability. Boeing has coined a term, “Right at first flight” — making sure the systems are put together in a way that they not only know how they function, but can expect just how reliable they’ll be. Throughout flight tests, the MAX will be operated just like an airline would operate it, to all climates and conditions.
Thus far, the MAX program has performed with flying colors in contrast to the 787, which entered service burdened by years of delays, followed by battery issues and a 3-month fleet grounding once already in service. But it’s fair to note that the MAX is an updated version of a legacy airframe that will be fifty years old once it enters service.