Boeing is considering options for augmenting the largest and smallest versions of the 737 Max with more competitive offerings that could be made ready long before more ambitious projects, such as the so-called Middle of the Market (MoM) concept, says vice-president and general manager Keith Leverkuhn.
The 180-seat 737 Max 9 is being outsold by a five-to-one margin to the Airbus A321neo. The 126-seat 737 Max 7 has attracted only 60 total orders by three customers and faces a re-energised challenge from the 135-seat Bombardier CS300, which is scheduled to enter service in the third quarter.
Both ends of the 737 Max portfolio could be expanded within the current product development cycle with larger and more capable versions, but so far no decisions have been made.
“The jury is still out,” says Leverkuhn, speaking to Flightglobal in his office over-looking the 737 assembly line in Renton, Washington.
The 737 Max 9 has been under severe pressure since it became clear that the market prefers the 2.4m-longer A321neo, with greater capacity to offer more seats and range than the Boeing alternative. Airbus has recorded 4,510 orders for all three variants of the A320neo family, including 1,108 for the A321. That compares to 3,090 firm orders overall for the 737 Max family, but only 223 firm orders for the 737 Max 9, according to Flightglobal Fleets Analyzer.
As sales pressure rose, Boeing started talking up the MoM concept, a clean-sheet aircraft with the range and seating capacity of a 767 and the operating economics of a 737-800. But the MoM would not be available until the mid-2020s. Now, Boeing’s product development teams are looking for option that could enter service much more quickly.
“Is there an interim step that could be made between where the Max sits today and when the Middle of the Market comes on board? Well, we’re looking at that,” Leverkuhn says.
Some analysts, including DVB Bank managing director Bert van Leeuwen, have doubted the feasibility of further stretching the 737 Max 9, already 50% longer than the original 737-100.
But Leverkuhn is encouraged that the market for the 737 Max 9 and the A321neo still represents a distinct minority in the single-aisle segment, with sales to date accounting for 17% of overall demand.
“The market understands the A321 is not a 757, the [Max]-9 is not a ’57,” he says. “So they might want more range in that space, too. But if there were something larger that kind of fit in there prior to the Middle of the Market, does that make sense? What could we do? What are the constraints on us? What are the constraints on the production system, the supply chain?
As Boeing works the answers to those questions, it is simultaneously looking to overhaul the lower end of the 737 Max portfolio, with a larger version of the 737 Max 7 with more seats and range, Leverkuhn says. Since the possibility surfaced nearly two weeks ago, two US-based airlines - Southwest and Delta - have expressed interest in the idea.
“That’s something that we might be able to do. If we can make that airplane a little bit bigger, what would the customers think?” Leverkuhn asks. “We’re not going to self-actualise. It’s going to be, what do the customers want, and, if we can get a really efficient long-range airplane with a couple more seat rows, does that create more traction in the market? And what we’re hearing is, yeah."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the 737 Max 9 may be replaced. The 737 Max 7 is being reviewed for replacement with a larger version, but Boeing is reviewing options for adding to the 737 Max product line with an aircraft larger than the 737 Max 9.