Why Boeing’s New 737 Will Fly in Europe First

Southwest helped design it, but Norwegian Air will be taking it for an inaugural spin.

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Southwest Airlines Co. was eager to sign up as the “launch customer” for Boeing Co.’s new 737 Max, soon to be the Greyhound of the skies as it replaces its older, less fuel-efficient cousins in fleets worldwide.

But Southwest won’t be first to fly or even receive the new aircraft. That honor will go to a smaller low-cost carrier across the Atlantic, Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA. Norwegian will receive the first Max 8 in May, spokesman Anders Lindstrom said Thursday, with flights starting as early as June.

737 MAX 8 artwork SWA Southwest Airlines
Boeing Co.

Southwest made its bones as the low-cost carrier that famously flies only one airplane family. As Boeing’s largest customer for the 737, it’s been involved in the redesign, which included outfitting the workhorse with a more powerful engine. In 2011, the Dallas-based airline placed the first order for the 737 Max, followed by Norwegian and Indonesia’s Lion Air. Yesterday, Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said his airline will get the first of its 200 737 Max’s by July—two months earlier than expected, but two months after Norwegian. 

The Max’s sprightly release clip has prompted delivery questions for both Southwest and Boeing, given that an aircraft’s launch customer typically gets—and flies—the new plane first. This sort of arrangement has been upended before, when Airbus A320neo, destined first for Qatar Airways Ltd., didn’t arrive as planned. Qatar chief Akbar Al Baker last year balked over glitches in the A320neo’s engine software and refused to take the first plane, which went instead to Lufthansa.

There’s more to being a launch customer than bragging rights—although that's a large part of the appeal of being the first to market with a shiny new jet. Aircraft makers also promise that their newest models boast lower fuel and maintenance costs than prior airplanes, providing an immediate bottom-line boost to airlines.

“We’re the launch customer, regardless of when we take the first delivery,” Southwest CEO Kelly said of the Max. His chief operating officer, Mike Van De Ven, said Thursday that “we’re the ones that have done the service-ready operational validation for Boeing. We’re the ones working very closely with Boeing to make sure it's operating as everyone intended.”

Boeing’s Max development is on-budget and ahead of schedule. All this good news, as far as production is concerned, is a rarity in an industry renowned for being late to everything.

Southwest plans to put its first Max into service later this year, once it retires its 87 remaining 737-300 Classics, the oldest planes in the fleet. And this is the sticking point: Southwest must first retire those old planes before it can accommodate new ones, a conundrum that traces back to pilot training issues. About 10 of Southwest’s 737 Max planes will be finished by the time the carrier is ready to begin flights in October, Van de Ven has said. The carrier is in talks with Boeing about what to do with those planes between July and October, because several are now parked at the periphery of Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton, Wash.

Norwegian, meanwhile, plans to take delivery of a half-dozen new 737 Max this year and then deploy them for trans-Atlantic service, though it hasn’t revealed which routes or a time frame. The European carrier has been focused on smaller airports in the Northeast U.S., bypassing the large metropolitan hubs.

—With Julie Johnsson in Chicago.

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