Boeing is set to deliver a 737 Max to a Chinese operator for the first time in almost five years – a small bright spot for the airframer as it battles an ongoing quality-control crisis.
A 737 Max 8 for China Southern Airlines took off from Boeing’s Seattle facility at around 11:55 local time on 24 January. The aircraft (B-20C8) was routing to Honolulu as flight CZ5073, before heading to its final destination, according to flight tracking data.
The flight marks a breakthrough in Boeing’s presence in the Chinese market, amid simmering geopolitical and economic tensions. China was the first country in the world to ground the type following two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, and was among the last to lift the operational ban.
Since then, Chinese carriers have slowly returned their stored Max aircraft to service, but there was no indication when deliveries would resume.
Chinese airlines have also not placed any significant orders for 737 Max aircraft, even as they committed to rival Airbus’ A320neo-family aircraft.
Boeing has previously underscored the importance of the fast-growing Chinese market, which it estimates to make up about 20% of global aircraft demand over the next 20 years. In its latest commercial outlook for China, Boeing forecasts Chinese carriers to need 8,560 new aircraft, of which about 75% are expected to be narrowbodies.
According to Cirium fleets data, Chinese operators hold orders for more than 200 737 Max aircraft.
The China Southern 737 Max delivery comes more than a month after Boeing delivered a 787 to Shanghai-based Juneyao Air – the first time in over four years it has done so. Since then, there has been anticipation that the airframer was due to restart 737 Max deliveries to China.
However, it is unclear if the latest delivery marks a proper reset of Boeing’s presence in China, or if it is a one-off event. Boeing did not publicly comment on the matter.
The airframer is facing growing scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers over quality-control and safety issues, after a door plug blow-out involving an Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9 on 5 January.
The accident led to the grounding of 171 Max 9s fitted with the same door plugs as the Alaska jet. Boeing is undertaking a “quality stand down” on 25 January at its Renton, Washington facility where 737 Max aircraft are assembled.
In what could also impact future deliveries, US regulators also ordered the airframer to halt further 737 Max production rate increases, amid large-scale investigations to ensure production safety.