Fiji Airways became the first carrier in the Asia-Pacific region to take delivery of new Boeing 737 Max aircraft this year, after Fijian civil aviation authorities lifted the type’s grounding.
However, the pair of new aircraft — delivered on 25 and 27 May, according to Cirium fleets data — are unlikely to fly anywhere yet, despite the airline’s key markets of Australia and New Zealand also lifting the type’s grounding.
This is due largely to travel restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Australia, for example, has closed off international borders until 2022. Fiji itself had battled a resurgence in coronavirus cases in April, after being relatively unscathed by the global pandemic.
Indeed, in explaining the paradoxical circumstances surrounding the deliveries, Fiji Airways stressed that it was “contractually obligated” to take the new jets, registered DQ-FAH and DQ-FAE.
The carrier had two 737 Max 8s in storage, which it took delivery of in 2018-2019. The remaining three jets, which were in its original order of five examples, were due to be delivered in mid-2019, but had to be deferred following the Max’s global grounding.
Fiji Airways chief Andre Viljoen says that when the grounding was lifted in Fiji in April, a team of airline staff, including engineers and pilots, along with Fijian civil aviation authority staff were in Boeing’s aircraft delivery centre in Seattle to commence the handover process of the two aircraft.
“In other words, they left well before this current outbreak and the process was already underway when the current unfortunate outbreak occurred,” Viljoen says, referencing the late-April surge in coronavirus cases.
He adds: “I would like to reiterate that Fiji Airways is contractually obligated to take these aircraft. I have previously explained in statements and press conferences…that aircraft contractual obligations are absolute. Penalties for breaking these contracts are much more severe than accepting and utilising the aircraft to earn revenue. Most airlines around the world are doing the same.”
Viljoen stressed that the 737 Max is “the core of the Fiji Airways fleet”, and that the type “will be integral for our economic recovery”.
SLOW PROGRESS IN SERVICE RE-ENTRY
That the two aircraft are the first jets to be delivered to an Asia-Pacific operator — following a global grounding after two fatal accidents in 2018 and 2019 — underscores the relatively slow progress in resumption of air services in the region.
The problem is further compounded by a resurgence in the pandemic, which has pummelled travel demand.
Juxtaposed against this is the massive orderbook Boeing holds for the 737 Max from the region’s operators. Cirium fleets data shows that Asia-Pacific carriers have ordered more than 1,200 737 Max aircraft, all ordered prior to the grounding.
The type remains indefinitely grounded in most of the Asia-Pacific, save for Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. China and India, both key 737 Max markets, have yet to indicate when the 737 Max will be ungrounded.
Consequently, this has translated into a dearth of orders for the 737 Max from operators in the region. Recent orders scored have been from airlines in North America and Europe, but none from an Asia-Pacific carrier.
It appears that 737 Max deliveries in the region will not be picking up that quickly either, if recent announcements are anything to go by.
China Eastern Airlines disclosed in its 2020 full-year results that it expects to introduce 46 737 aircraft in 2023. While it did not state the variant to be introduced, the carrier had previously disclosed in its 2019 annual results that it expected to take up to 46 737 Max aircraft between 2020 and 2021, but that these had to be deferred indefinitely following the type’s global grounding.
Compatriot Air China is likely to only resume 737 Max deliveries beyond 2023, a sobering indication on how the country’s airlines expect service reentry to unfold.
Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines expects to take eight 737 Max 8s in the 12 months to 31 March 2022, though airline executives have stressed that plans could remain fluid, depending on when the type is ungrounded.