For Mike Murphy, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president and chief project engineer for the 737 program, March was a busy and gratifying month marked with several major milestones.
Irish low-fare carrier Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline in passenger numbers, took delivery of its 500th 737 on March 23, the new 737 Max 7 successfully completed its first flight on March 16, and a couple of days later the manufacturer handed over the first 737 Max 9 to launch customer Lion Air Group. Earlier in the month, the 737 broke the Guinness World Records title for the most produced commercial jet aircraft model as the 10,000th 737—a Max 8 for Southwest Airlines—rolled off the production line.
With an order backlog of about 4,600 aircraft, including firm sales for more than 4,300 examples of the Max, the “737 has some long legs in front of it,” Murphy told AIN. “You can easily see the program getting 20,000 units out there,” he opined. “We still have a lot of aircraft to deliver and sales are still brisk. Production rates are going up; we were at 42 airplanes per month a year ago; we are at 47 units per month right now and going to 52 airplanes per month next year. And we are looking beyond that as well.”
The Max 9 has been “overshadowed at this point” by its larger sibling, the Max 10, Murphy acknowledged while stressing that a market exists for both. “We have seen some conversions of the - 9 to the - 10 where it made sense for operators,” he acknowledged. “But there are still a lot of operators that the - 9 is the perfect airplane for; its depends what the route structure is and what their passenger load is going to be. They are not really the same airplanes.”
Boeing launched the Max 10, the largest of all the Max variants, at the Paris Airshow last June, prompting several airlines to switch their Max orders or commitments to the Max 10. The most notable example, United Airlines, converted 100 of its orders for 161 -9s into orders for the -10. The final Max derivative reached firm configuration in February, putting it on schedule for EIS in 2020. The Max 10 has logged orders and commitments for 416 examples from 18 customers worldwide, according to Boeing.
Yet, the Max 9 remains an intrinsic part of the Max family, Murphy insisted. The ability to promote a whole family is “great because you can offer the customer a lot of choice,” he explained. “When you go from a Max 7 through a Max 10, including the Max 8-200, which is what Ryanair is basing its whole fleet on, there is a lot of opportunity to fill specific needs and specific routes.” The Dublin-based LCC, Europe’s largest Boeing customer by number of deliveries, became the launch customer in 2014 for the 737 Max 200, the 737 Max 8 certified for a high-density configuration of up to 200 seats. Planning to operate its Max 200s with 197 seats in a single-class configuration, Ryanair played an important role in the development of the Max 200. “They demanded we fit more passengers in the Max 8, so we added an extra emergency exit door, so enough passengers can be evacuated within the 90-second emergency limit,” said Murphy. Ryanair has placed orders for up to 210 (110 firm and 100 options) Max 200s. It expects to take delivery of its first in April 2019.
Murphy expressed little concern about the minimal interest the market has shown for the smallest Max variant, the -7. “The airplane is not on the market yet,” he noted. “The flight-test program has only just started [March 16], and it will demonstrate the capability of this aircraft. I think the Max 7 will become more and more popular as the Chinese discover how well this variant performs on a higher elevation plateau.” China has several high-altitude airports, including some at above 14,000 feet.