Boeing's New No-Drama 737 Jetliner Is Ready for Its Public Debut

  • After snags on other models, Max quietly meets a deadline
  • Planemaker can't afford delays on latest version of cash cow

The first completed Boeing Co. 737 MAX airplane is pictured at the Boeing manufacturing facility in Renton, Washington, on Dec. 8. The first four 737 MAX airplanes, including this one, are destined for Southwest Airlines.

Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg

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, the company’s all-time sales leader and the latest progeny of the jet originally rolled out in 1967. 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.

Complicating that task: Boeing must seamlessly slip the new Max into assembly lines already moving at a record flow, and about to speed up even more. The factory churning out 737s is “the closest thing we’ve got to automotive production,” he said.

The Chicago-based planemaker also can’t risk losing any more ground to Airbus Group SE, which grabbed the single-aisle lead by being the first to market an upgraded version with more fuel-efficient engines. Airbus has sold 4,443 of its A320neo models to Boeing’s 2,955 Max sales, according to company websites.

Low-Key Rollout

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 exhibitions 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 the 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’s current tempo for the 737 is 42 jets a month, rising to 52 by 2018. To reach that goal, or perhaps push output even higher, the planemaker shoehorned a third assembly line for the Max onto the same factory floors that previously held two 737 lines.

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