Updated: Monday October 2nd, 3:45pm EDT

DALLAS – The Boeing 737 MAX has officially entered service with Southwest Airlines, as the Dallas-based low-cost carrier (LCC) operated its inaugural 737 MAX 8 flight from Dallas Love Field to Houston Hobby Airport Sunday.

I was on hand for the first flight and festivities as the plane was set to fly the “Texas Triangle” (Dallas – Houston – San Antonio – Dallas) as part of an eight segment rotation on day one.

The “Triangle” is noteworthy for being Flights 1, 2, and 3 – which were the original three flights and destinations when the airline started up in 1971. However, due to a faulty indicator on the spoiler, we were only able to fly one 737 MAX segment before a 737-800 was subbed in for the remainder of the flights.

Credit: Paul Thompson

Southwest’s Grand 737 MAX Launch

Southwest is the U.S. launch customer for the 737 MAX, Boeing’s re-engine of the 737 Next Generation (737-600/700/800/900/900ER) and the fourth generation of the 737 program since its launch in 1968.

In all, Southwest has 191 737 MAX jets on order (161 MAX 8s, 30 MAX 7s) with nine already in service. Its order book makes it the second largest MAX customer in the world after Indonesian ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) Lion Air.

Southwest was originally the worldwide launch customer for the MAX 8, but a battle with its pilots over type ratings allowed both Malindo Air (part of the Lion Air Group) and European ULCC Norwegian Air Shuttle to beat Southwest in placing the MAX 8 into service in May and June respectively.

As Southwest CEO Gary Kelly noted, Southwest has been involved with Boeing on the MAX from nearly the beginning:

It has been twelve years in the making. We first started talking to Boeing in 2005, they were working on the Dreamliner at the time. And we said, what about a Dreamliner version of a narrow body? Even getting the airplane committed by Boeing took quite a bit of work. They wanted to have an all new airplane. Ultimately they arrived at a re-engined airplane in the form of the MAX, and it’s here much earlier than it otherwise would have been, and really the launch bas been flawless, so we’ve been very very pleased with that. The airplane has been in production for revenue flights in 2017 and some of the other airlines around the world have broken the airplane in, and that’s been to our advantage. We’ve had the airplane deliveries beginning roughly a month ago, and we got our ninth aircraft this past week, so we have eight airplanes that are flying today. There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into that by hundreds of people at Southwest Airlines. Boeing is ahead of their production schedule, which gave us ample time to get the aircraft off to a good start.

Essentially, Southwest had to retire the 737 Classics from its fleet (which it did on Friday) so that its pilots didn’t hold three type ratings.

To kick things off on its big day, Southwest planned a massive, blow-out launch of the 737 MAX. It took delivery of its first MAX jet back at the end of August but waited until nine MAX 8s were on property before launching service. Simultaneously, last Friday, Southwest withdrew 30 737-300s from the fleet (ending the type’s decades-long history at Southwest), creating a weekend of massive fleet turnover.

On day one, the nine 737 MAX 8s were scheduled to fly 46 segments in all. With the cancellation of two of the eight segments flown by the very first jet, in reality only 44 of them will be operated by the end of the day. This marks an unprecedented launch for a new aircraft variant at any airline worldwide, both in terms of frequency and in terms of the number of planes flying on day one.

Throughout the morning, nine MAX jets departed from six airports flying the following inaugural routes:

  • Dallas Love – Houston Hobby
  • Dallas Love – Denver
  • Houston Hobby – Dallas Love
  • Houston Hobby – Denver
  • Baltimore Washington – Los Angeles
  • Denver – Dallas Love
  • Phoenix – St. Louis
  • Chicago Midway – Birmingham (AL)

After flying these initial routes, Southwest will begin to rotate the MAX 8s throughout its normal network. It expects to end 2017 with 14 MAX jets in all.

The scale of the event was certainly astounding, perhaps compensating for the fact that there was no major employee rollout event in September. Southwest actually had one planned, but understandably canceled the event after the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston metropolitan area (home to thousands of Southwest employees).

Other U.S. carriers, including United Airlines, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines, are also MAX customers who will take delivery of the jet over the next two to three years. In all the 737 MAX has 3,843 firm orders from 63 identified customers, and Southwest alone represents more than five percent of the entire backlog.

The MAX offers reduced fuel burn and maintenance costs, but at Southwest, the biggest step forward is in the range capabilities of the plane. Kelly explains:

The range is really significant. You go back to the [737-]200 and in those days the range was probably 1,100 miles vs. 4,000 nautical miles now. The range is very meaningful for us. We’re at a point where we’re expanding beyond the 48 states since 2014, and have tremendous opportunities to add destinations all within the North American footprint and maybe as far as South America and ultimately the airplane may be able to do the mission as far as the UK. I don’t think it transforms the airline into something that’s radically different from what we were, but it certainly gives us more capabilities. More than that, it’s just more cost-effective, climate-friendly, and it’s quieter.

And while Southwest is focused for now on the MAX 7 and MAX 8, Kelly didn’t rule out eventually adding the 737 MAX 10 to the order book:

Our focus will now turn to launching the MAX 7, and that will be a couple more years. And there’s work still to be done on getting that into service… I think the MAX 9 isn’t incrementally better enough for us to look at that one seriously. On down the road, maybe the MAX 10 is something that would be logical for us to look at. But right now, we’re not discussing it, we’re not seriously considering it, other than just to keep up with Boeing and see what they’re doing with their product line.

Festivities Kick Off at the Gate

Despite the early hour, the mood amongst the employees when I arrived at Love Field Sunday morning was reasonably high-energy, though it was perhaps a touch understated relative to the typical launch or inaugural festivities. The crowd consisted mostly of employees and press with six or seven regular passengers mixed in.

The gate area was overhauled with a few festive touches for the event, including a postcard booth and a swag cart, along with a variety of decorations. Love Field-based gate agent Daryl Thomas was on hand to psych up the ground with high energy chants and cheers, while Kelly shared in the excitement.

We are doing the Texas Triangle. This is the 4th time we have launched a 737, [but] it’s my first time to fly it.

On the inaugural, 150 seats were offered for sale, and the flight sold out in minutes. The first 737 MAX 8 to enter revenue service was N8707P flying WN 1, WN 2, and WN 3 (DAL-HOU-SAT-DAL). Overall on day one, the N8707P was scheduled to fly seven segments in all: DAL-HOU-SAT-DAL-HOU-PIT-LAX-PHX.

As we boarded the plane, we heard Southwest’s new boarding music. “We love sports but we love music too,” said Kelly, “so this is a new feature we are proud of.” The boarding process was also spiced up with a trivia game where 25,000 Rapid Reward miles were given away in a raffle.

Credit: Author.
Credit: Author.

The MAX 8’s improved Boeing Sky Cabin with multiple mood lighting also won plaudits from the passengers on board. At 7:17 am local time (17 minutes after the on-time pushback at 7:00 am sharp), we slipped into a whisper quiet take-off roll.

Credit: Author.

In-flight on the inaugural

We quickly climbed to 31,000 feet before leveling off for just a few minutes on the quick 55-minute sprint to Houston, before beginning our descent. As the flight began and ramped up to cruising altitude, it became clear that the Southwest frequent fliers on board were seriously impressed.

“I flew all the way in just to be on this flight,” said Jim Luczaj, a Southwest frequent flyer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I love aviation and I love Southwest so I just had to be on the first flight of the MAX. It’s so quiet. We can actually hold a conversation. The lighting makes it feel more spacious.”

“I bring my wife Holly and son Mark on special Southwest inaugural flights,” added Tim Klan of Erie, PA. “It’s a family affair. We’ve always been treated well on Southwest. We became addicted to doing inaugural flights. We go out of our way to fly Southwest. I am surprised how quiet the MAX is. The mood lighting and new cabin give it a much more open feeling.”

While we were only at cruising altitude for a few minutes, Kelly found the time to raffle away an Apple Watch and quickly pay tribute to Southwest founder Herb Kelleher:

“Herb Kelleher our founder, who has been on all Southwest inaugural flights of a new type wanted to be onboard this morning but couldn’t make it. I want to dedicate these Texas triangle flights to him in honor of him founding a great airline. Please let him know how much you enjoyed this flight. Herb texts but he doesn’t email so copy me on my email and I will make sure he receives your messages.”

Credit: Author.

Because of the short length of the flight (and Southwest’s no-frills style), there was no special service offered onboard. At 7:59 we landed at Houston Hobby Airport, and the plane burst out into applause

Credit: Author.

Credit: Author.

An aborted inaugural run

Once we landed at Houston, the trouble began. Most of the passengers remained on board for flight #2 to San Antonio, but at that moment snafus struck. A series of mechanical issues, including a faulty indicator light and a spoiler issues created a cascading set of delays that eventually reached three hours.

The electric spoiler indicator issue forced a substitution of the 737-800 onto WN 2 and WN 3. The one silver lining was that the Southwest team responded with excellent efficiency and grace, as the replacement jet was at the gate minutes after the MAX 8 was towed away. Our particular aircraft was put back into service later that afternoon. A Southwest spokesperson told Airways that “The aircraft was cleared and put back into revenue service yesterday afternoon.  The rest of the MAX fleet launched yesterday and all are flying the network today!”

As Gary Kelly noted, this was the first new Type 737 inaugural Herb Kelleher has missed. Maybe he jinxed the event by not coming. Either way, it was a disappointing end to an excellent inauguration for Southwest and America’s first 737 MAX jet.

Despite the issues, day one for Southwest’s MAX 8 is far from the most disastrous for a U.S. airline. In fact, Pan Am’s Boeing 747 Inaugural in 1970 was delayed by eight hours due to engine over-heating on the ground.

Passengers deplaned and were taken to an Italian restaurant for dinner, then transferred to another sister aircraft. It is largely forgotten now and for the 747, the rest is history. It went on to be a success, and so will Southwest’s 737 MAX 8.