Boeing Co.’s latest 737 airliner is gliding through development with little notice, and that may be the plane’s strongest selling point.
Even the customary fanfare accompanying a new plane’s public debut has been muted. While the 737 Max’s rollout is being celebrated Tuesday in private ceremonies outside Seattle, the first plane actually slipped out of a Boeing factory to the paint shop on Nov. 30, meeting to the day a timeline set four years ago.
“It’s saying to the world: ‘We’re back,’” said George Hamlin, a former aerospace and airline executive who is now president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting. “It’s a marker to say we’re back to where we can meet our internal schedule and get development done economically and efficiently.”
Boeing can’t afford delays or drama with the Max, which has almost 3,000 orders to make it the company’s all-time sales leader. The single-aisle 737 family is Boeing’s largest source of profit, and the planemaker stumbled twice earlier this decade with tardy debuts for its wide-body 787 Dreamliner and 747-8 jumbo jet.
The mandate: “Right at first flight,” Keith Leverkuhn, vice president and general manager of the 737 Max program, told reporters Monday in the Renton, Washington, plant where Boeing builds narrow-body aircraft.
Boeing’s media session and the employees-only event contrasted with the industry’s usual practice of unveiling new aircraft with flourishes such as live music and dropping curtains. Hamlin said the Max’s low-key displays were “the first major development of a model that I can recall being rolled out privately.”
The Max will slide gradually into public view as pilots start ground tests ahead of the maiden flight due early next year. The plane’s features include new engines, more-aerodynamic wings and winglets, and cockpit displays borrowed from the 787. It’s designed to burn 20 percent less fuel than the previous family of 737s, unveiled in the 1990s, and boast operating costs that are 8 percent less than Airbus Group SE’s A320neo. Southwest Airlines Co. is supposed to get the first delivery, in mid-2017.
Boeing has a practical reason to distance itself from its recent history of snags on the 787, the 747-8 and, this year, a new tanker for the U.S. Air Force. The current 737 lineup is among the industry’s most dependable, boasting a 99.7 percent schedule reliability, according to Boeing’s website.
Before flight tests begin, Boeing is “stress-testing” new technology and systems on the plane “to a much greater degree than ever before,” Leverkuhn said. It is also tailoring the trials, which should last about a year, to mimic how airlines would use the jet.
Single-aisle jetliners are the airline industry’s workhorses, ferrying travelers on flights that last a few hours. Boeing and Airbus are quickening assembly of the aircraft as they work to convert a $1.2 trillion order backlog into cash.
Boeing had 4,243 unfilled orders for both current and Max versions of the 737 as of the third quarter, trailing the 5,502 for Airbus’s A320 family, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
Since planemakers receive the bulk of payment when they deliver airplanes, faster 737 output would provide a revenue boost for Boeing as it faces slowing production of the 777, its best-selling wide-body jet. Boeing’s current tempo for the 737 is 42 jets a month, rising to 52 by 2018.
Airbus plans to boost narrow-body output to 60 jets a month by 2019.
This article was written by Julie Johnsson from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.