Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly says the carrier will be the launch customer of the Boeing 737 Max “regardless of when we take the first delivery”, even as Norwegian prepares to be the first operator.

Kelly cites the Dallas-based carrier’s extensive involvement with Boeing on the development and testing of the latest generation of the venerable narrowbody, as the rationale behind his comment during a quarterly earnings call today.

Southwest is the launch customer of the Max, placing the first order in December 2011. Norwegian placed its 737 Max order a month later in January 2012.

Southwest reaffirms that it will not debut the 737 Max 8 on scheduled flights until the end of the third quarter, when all its 737-300 and -500 aircraft, or classics, are retired.

“We don’t really need [the 737 Max] for flying until October 1,” says Kelly.

Southwest will be at least the second operator of the Max, with Norwegian confirming again today that it plans to take delivery of its first 737 Max 8 in May and debut it on transatlantic flights in June or July.

“Norwegian will now be the first airline to take delivery of the 737 Max, and will be the first airline in the world to operate this brand-new aircraft type,” a spokesman for Norwegian says.

The jockeying between Norwegian and Southwest sets up a race between the two carriers to see who will take the first 737 Max, with the odds likely on the latter due to its placing the first order and heavy involvement in the programme.

Lion Air, Norwegian and Southwest are all scheduled to take their first Max 8s in May, the Flight Fleets Analyzer shows. In addition, China Eastern Airlines, FlyDubai and WestJet are scheduled to take their first of the type before the end of September.

Norwegian plans to base at least its first four Max aircraft in the USA, including at Newburgh’s Stewart International airport near New York City. It will use the aircraft to open new point-to-point routes across the Atlantic.

Norwegian has firm orders for 108 Max 8s and Southwest has firm orders for 200 Max 7s and 8s, Fleets Analyzer shows.

Southwest anticipates a 20-aircraft net reduction in its fleet to 703 at the end of 2017, as it removes the 87 737-300s that remained at the end of December.

The airline is scheduled to take 42 737-800s and 14 Max 8s this year, Fleets Analyzer shows.

Source: Cirium Dashboard