Singapore Air Show

737-900ERs make their mark on Asia Pacific

 - February 11, 2008, 10:20 AM

Indonesia’s Lion Air and India’s SpiceJet have started operating some of the first 737-900ERs to roll off Boeing’s Renton, Washington assembly line. The Asian carriers could well serve as barometers of the type’s value within the low-fare markets expected to account for so much of the region’s airline growth. Early accounts suggest the new twinjet has met expectations and more.

Lion Air took delivery of its ninth 900ER just before this year’s Singapore Air Show and, according to Boeing 737 program manager John Hamilton, the Jakarta-based airline has seen load factors of between 90 and 95 percent in its new 213-seat airplanes.

Lion Air is the largest customer for the 900ER, holding firm orders for 122 of the airplanes, all in a single-class layout that results in a decidedly cozy seat pitch of 28 inches. One of the airline’s first 900ERs made local headlines last October, when upon takeoff from Jakarta it suffered a tail strike and sustained an eight-foot gash in its underbelly. Attributed to improper loading, the incident resulted in no injuries and, according to Hamilton, “customers are actually requesting to fly on Lion Air because of the new airplanes.” Lion Air has seen its dispatch reliability rate reach 99.7 percent since it placed its first 900ER into service last April, he added.

Planning to replace its aged fleet of McDonnell Douglas MD-80s with the new Boeing jets, Lion Air has for years served as a vital bridge between the many islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Now it plans to use the 900ERs to begin linking Indonesia with Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia and China.

Meanwhile, Delhi-based SpiceJet recorded a perfect dispatch reliability rate for its first pair of 900ERs during their opening month of operation last December. The Indian airline expects to place its third of the type into service later this month, followed by a fourth during the second quarter of 2008 and the last of its firm orders for five by September. It has placed the high-density, 212-seat airplanes on some of its most traveled routes, including Mumbai-Delhi, Mumbai-Bangalore, Delhi-Bangalore, Mumbai-Ahmedabad-Delhi and Delhi-Goa-Mumbai.

Unlike Lion Air, which plans to build the core of its fleet with 900ERs, SpiceJet uses its 900ERs as more of a high-capacity supplement to a much larger and still rapidly growing fleet of 737-800s. Operating 16 of the smaller airplanes in their maximum 189-seat layout as of last month, SpiceJet held firm delivery positions on 14 more and planned to place a firm order for a further 10.

A pair of fuselage plugs make the standard 737-900 eight feet, eight inches longer than the 737-800–but emergency egress requirements meant that the -900 could carry no more passengers in a one-class layout than the -800 could carry, giving airlines such as SpiceJet no reason to opt for the bigger variant. Although at 177 passengers, the -900 allowed for 15 more passengers in a typical dual-class configuration, it traded quite a bit of range for such a marginal improvement in capacity. With the help of an additional pair of Type II emergency exit doors behind the wings, the 900ER won certification last year to carry as many as 220 passengers, effectively restoring Boeing’s presence in a capacity segment it abandoned with the retirement of the 757 line.

Today, as the 900ER approaches its first full year in service, the airplane serves as a platform of study for a number of possible improvements to the Next Generation 737 line. The improvements include the first set of carbon brakes ever installed on a 737–on a 900ER borrowed from Lion Air, in fact–in the next major effort to reduce weight in the airplanes. According to Hamilton, the switch from steel results in a weight savings of about 700 pounds. However, Boeing still must answer questions about their durability and cooling properties, validation of which the company needs to finish before a planned mid-year certification.

“One of the things our customers keep asking about,” Hamilton said, “is what the impact of carbon brakes would be on turn times. We have a number of customers that turn their airplanes in less than 25 minutes at the gate. So [we’re gaining an] understanding how quickly carbon brakes cool down, and the early data we have indicates that they’re comparable to steel but we still have more testing to do before we can go claim that.”

If all goes according to plan, Boeing also expects to offer radial tires to go along with the new braking system. Hamilton explained that the wheels on the current 737 NGs can use only bias-ply tires because of their comparatively narrow width. However, the wider wheels Boeing designed for the carbon braking system could, in fact, accommodate radials. Hamilton expected to have accumulated enough test data to officially start offering the tires around the time of the Singapore show or shortly thereafter.