RENTON, Wash. – One year after Boeing’s super-fuel-efficient 737 MAX 8 jet made its aerial debut, its bigger sibling – the MAX 9 – is just weeks away from its rollout.
The 737 MAX 9 nearly 9 feet longer and should be able to carry up to 20 more passengers than the first MAX variant to roll down the runway. The assembly process takes advantage of new technologies, including a streamlined robotic system to drill the holes and screw in the bolts on the plane’s wings.
Boeing’s engineers have come up with new tricks for putting the planes together and testing them. But the biggest difference between getting the MAX 8 and the MAX 9 ready for prime time has to do with human factors, says Keith Leverkuhn, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for the 737 MAX program.
“I don’t think with respect to the design, the supply chain, there’s anything like that that gives us pause on what we ought to be doing on the Dash 9,” he told reporters at Boeing’s Renton plant on Feb. 13 during a sneak peek at the first MAX 9 and the assembly lines where it’s being built.
“But one thing that I would expect is that as we move through the flight tests of the past year, there are internal efficiencies that we should be able to gain,” Leverkuhn said. “Can we be sure that we’ve got the right team in place, with what I call full kits: parts, plans, tools ready to go?”
With President Barack Obama looking on, executives from Boeing and Vietjet Air signed a deal in Hanoi worth $11.3 billion for 100 737 MAX airplanes – the biggest single commercial airplane purchase in Vietnam.
The single-aisle MAX 200s will be delivered over a time frame ranging from 2019 through 2023, boosting Vietjet’s fleet to more than 200 planes. The low-cost carrier put in a series of orders with Airbus for A320 and A321 jets over the past two years.
The order for the next-generation, fuel-efficient 737 MAX jets provided a commercial boost for Obama’s first-ever visit to Vietnam this week. Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang was also on hand for Monday’s signing ceremony.
Is Boeing’s 737 MAX just a 737 jet, or is it something new? That question figures in a years-long battle between Southwest Airlines and its pilots union.
The fuel-efficient 737 MAX made its maiden test flight in January, and Southwest is due to receive the first plane of that breed in the first half of next year. The airline has put in firm orders for 30 of the MAX 7 variant and 170 of the MAX 8.
The issue is that the yet-to-be-delivered 737 MAX isn’t specifically named in the current labor agreement between the airline and the 8,300-member Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association. The two sides have been negotiating over a new contract for more than four years, and dispute has become increasingly bitter. The pilots are seeking higher pay and an improved retirement package, while Southwest is seeking more flexible work rules and improvements in productivity.
The negotiations are currently in federal mediation.
For months, Southwest pilots have been saying that they won’t fly the 737 MAX when it’s delivered, because it’s not listed among the planes covered by the existing contract. Today the union filed a lawsuit asking a federal court in Dallas to block Southwest from flying the 737 MAX until the plane is officially listed in a new contract.
Boeing’s newest breed of airplane, the fuel-efficient 737 MAX, took to the air for the first time on Jan. 29– and the first pilots to fly it had nothing but glowing reviews.
“This is our first airplane of our second century, and I just have to say, wow, this is an amazing machine,” chief test pilot Craig Bomben told reporters afterward at Seattle’s Boeing Field, in a reference to the Boeing Co.’s centennial this year.
737 MAX chief pilot Ed Wilson said that the nearly three-hour flight occasionally got “a little rough up there,” due to the rainy weather, but that the plane worked like a charm. “This airplane is ready to go to test. … We are off and running,” he said.
For this first flight, the jet was limited to traveling at a speed of no more than 250 knots, and rising no higher than 25,000 feet. “We just let it cruise,” Wilson said.
The latest incarnation of the long-lived 737 line will undergo months of testing and certification, leading up to the first deliveries to customers in 2017. Southwest Airlines, which is due to receive the first planes, tweeted its congratulations during the nearly three-hour maiden flight.