• New 150-passenger jet would stretch plane's smallest version
  • Single-aisle Max is latest variation in line dating to 1960s

Boeing Co. is pitching some of the largest U.S. airlines on a potential upgrade of its smallest 737 Max as it battles Airbus Group SE and Bombardier Inc. for lucrative single-aisle jet orders, people familiar with the matter said.

The U.S. planemaker is studying a potential redesign that would lengthen the frame and range for the 737 Max 7 and is sounding out potential customers, including Delta Air Lines Inc., said two people familiar with the discussions who asked not to be named because the talks aren’t public. The second-largest U.S. carrier is poised to order narrow-body planes from Bombardier and Airbus, Bloomberg reported earlier.

Boeing’s planning is in the early stages and there’s no guarantee the so-called 737 Max 7X will be built, one of the people said Thursday. Any decision to go forward with the 150-seat plane would require approval from Southwest Airlines Co. and WestJet Airlines Ltd., the two largest Max 7 customers, the person said. Boeing has also approached United Airlines about converting its recent 737-700 orders to the new model. 

The Max versions, featuring new engines and more aerodynamic wings, are the latest in a 737 product line dating to the 1960s. The narrow-body jets are being flight-tested ahead of their expected debut next year with Southwest.

Boeing has only 60 orders for the Max 7, which is slated to fly first with the Dallas-based carrier in 2019. Airlines have gravitated to more economical models, like the Max 8, which spreads similar fuel costs across 162 travelers in a typical two-cabin layout. The Max 7 carries 126 passengers.

Hearing Rumors

Southwest, Boeing’s largest 737 customer, has “heard rumors” of the new model, Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said during an earnings conference call Thursday. Asked if the airline would consider such a plane, he responded, “Absolutely, we’d want to consider different options that are out there.”

Representatives for American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. said they always consider any new offerings from manufacturers and declined to be more specific about any Boeing plans. Delta and WestJet representatives declined to comment. 

“We don’t comment on our product development studies,” Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said by e-mail. “But we’re always looking at ways to best serve the market and our customers.”

The planemaker has been exploring ways to extend its family of workhorse 737 single-aisle jets as it tries to cut into the sales lead commanded by Airbus for its upgraded A320neo series. Airbus has garnered 4,500 sales, compared with 3,090 orders for the Max, according to the companies’ websites.

Battling Airbus

Boeing developed a high-density version of the Max 8 that crams in 200 travelers and has said it is studying stretching the largest Max to counter Airbus’s A321neo in the midrange market.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Boeing is considering an upgrade that would stretch the Max 7 in a frame that borrows from the Max 8. 

An aircraft that size might serve as a replacement for the quarter-century-old McDonnell Douglas MD-88s that Delta is phasing out, Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace consultant, said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

For now, the Boeing offering is a “paper plane,” Aboulafia said. “It’s an interesting talking point. We’ll see if it works pretty quickly.”

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