Its launch customer now in hand and its production system taking shape, Boeing's future 737 Max development resembles its narrowbody programmes of its past. The airframer has backed up its commitment for a minimum-change aircraft with stakeholders who rely on the continuity of the aircraft's design.
Southwest Airlines, launch customer for the 737-300, -500 and -700, announced the 737 Max's first firm order on 13 December, adding 208 new narrowbodies to its backlog, including 150 re-engined aircraft.
The order is valued at $19 billion, though Southwest expects to spend on average $1.2 billion on capital expenditure each year between 2012 and 2022.
Boeing hopes to minimize the changes between the Next Generation 737 and the 737 Max preserving both the common pilot type rating and grandfathered US Federal Aviation Administration certification.
Southwest's launch order for the 737 Max will guide the aircraft's development, including which variant is built and tested first. So far, it appears the airline will forego the smaller -7 and put the -8 on that path to be Max One, though Boeing says: "Southwest has the flexibility to choose from 737-7s and 737-8s so it's their decision on which will be first."
In its role as launch customer, Southwest - a staunch advocate of minimum change technologies to optimise products and innovate its operational processes - will guide the development of the new 737 variant, which includes the re-engined 737-7, -8 and -9.
Though the Southwest of 2011 isn't the Southwest of 1993 that launched the Next Generation 737 family or the 737 Classic in 1981 and has evolved from its previous habits that made it the largest domestic carrier in the US. It's slow and methodical growth has been its hallmark, though the US low-cost carrier has grown through a major acquisition, with the purchase of AirTran Airways and it has moved toward larger aircraft as it pushes into the the country's most tightly controlled airports to see a greater return on its investment.
That strategic outlook and its transformation to a faster growing company, explains the work of London School of Economics academic Dr. Theodore Piepenbrock, has been at the root of Southwest's market dominance and overall cost advantage among the US domestic carriers.
"We tried to stay with a commonality theme," says Brian Hirshman, Southwest senior vice president of technical operations of the company's fleet philosophy. "Of course, we wanted to improve upon efficiency and productivity around the airplane, so we've been working closely with Boeing and it's every much an iterative process. Our intention is to play a very important part in the development of the airplane right up through entry into service."
The December 7 ratification of the new four-year International Machinists and Aerospace Workers contract made official Boeing's selection of its Renton, Washington final assembly line as the new home for the 737 Max, preserving an industrial footprint that has evolved from its earliest incarnations as a slant production system in 1970 after being consolidated with the 707 and 727 to today's ultra-efficient moving assembly line.
The first production 737 Max will be delivered to Southwest in the fourth quarter 2017, the first of four the airline expects to receive that year.
After the troubled development of the now certified 787-8, 747-8F and 747-8I, Boeing will advance into the initial development work for the 737 Max establishing final configuration in mid-2013.
Though significant unknowns remain about the 737 MAX, John Hamilton 737 chief programme engineer says: "The configuration is well enough known that Southwest and Boeing had confidence going forward with the deal at this time."
Boeing's strategic tendency toward big jumps in technology on its recent products will likely be tempered by Southwest's conservatism and strategic philosophy that has guided the airframer's last two incremental 737 variant families.
Southwest has adopted a conservative expectation for the 737 Max, touting a 10-11% fuel burn improvement between the 737-800, which will arrive in its fleet in 2012, and the 737-8, one percentage point lower than the 10-12% figure touted by Boeing.
"We look forward to working with Southwest over the next five or six years to make sure it is the right airplane for Southwest and we will deliver the real thing - I guarantee you - on schedule and on spec and you will continue to have the best airplane in the marketplace," says Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh.
Despite the addition of a strengthened airframe, new tail cone, raised nose landing gear and fly-by-wire spoilers, the external configuration will still remain largely familiar to that of the previous 737s, with the larger 173cm (68in) CFM International Leap-1B engine expected to deliver the overwhelming block of the aircraft's fuel burn improvement.
CFM, for now, isn't yet sharing much detail about its "custom core" that power Max.
"All I can tell you is the core for the Leap-1B is optimised for the Leap-1B engine," says Chaker Chahrour CFM executive vice president, "The engine itself is optimised to deliver the best performance on that airplane and the core is optimised to be compatible with that engine."
Photo Credit Boeing, FlyingJ31 & Tbird-Boston