After witnessing an unprecedented order influx at its transatlantic arch-rival’s re-engined Airbus A320neo (new engine option) aircraft which garnered 1,196 firm orders only one year since its launch in December 2010, Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer Boeing looks set to enjoy a similar orders bonanza for its re-engined 737 MAX aircraft in 2012 as it received a staggering US$19 billion firm order for 150 737 MAX and 58 additional 737 NG (next-generation) family aircraft from US low-cost carrier (LCC) Southwest Airlines.
The Dallas-based low-cost pioneer, which revolutionised air travel even before the US airline industry deregulation in 1978, opted for the 737 MAX 8 in the aircraft’s launch order, a departure from its long-standing trend of launching the smaller variant in the narrowbody offerings of the world’s second-largest aircraft manufacturer such as its launches of the 737-300, -500 and -700 variants in the past, flightglobal Pro reported.
Southwest Airlines will only receive 4 737 MAX deliveries in 2017, then 15 and 33 examples in 2018 and 2019, respectively, followed by 34 deliveries each year in 2020 and 2021, and the final 30 737 MAX deliveries in 2022.
The order which is valued by aircraft valuation firm Avitas at US$10.5 billion after significant discounts that launch customers usually receive, grows the low-cost carrier’s existing order backlog with the Chicago-based airframer of 142 to 350, in addition to the airline’s revelation that it has substituted all 737-700 deliveries in 2012 and 2013, as well as a portion of -700 deliveries in 2014 to the bigger -800 variant as a result of the bigger sibling’s lower fuel burn per seat and the airline’s expansion in capacity-constrained US east-coast business markets.
“Southwest is a special Boeing customer and has been a true partner in the evolution of the 737. Throughout our 40-year relationship, our two companies have collaborated to launch the 737-300, 737-500 and the Next-Generation 737-700 – affirming the 737 as the world’s preferred single-aisle airplane. As launch customer for the 737 MAX, Southwest, Boeing and the 737 continue that legacy,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) president and chief executive Jim Albaugh remarked.
“We have always been an all-Boeing airline. It is a real treat to be able to extend that string,” Southwest Airlines chairman and chief executive Gary Kelly concurred.
“Today’s environment demands that we become more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, and as the launch customer of the Boeing 737 MAX, we have accomplished both. We are teaming up with our friends from Boeing to lead the industry in a way that makes both our shareholders and our customers proud to associate with Southwest Airlines. Today’s announcement will allow us to maintain our position as a low-cost provider in the years ahead,” Kelly emphasised.
“We are enthusiastic about our fleet modernisation plans, and especially about becoming the launch customer for the Boeing 737 MAX. The much improved fuel efficiency of the 737 MAX will enable us to improve our fuel costs, as well as our environmental performance, with great comfort and reliability to offer to our customers,” Southwest Airlines executive vice president (EVP) and chief operating officer (COO) Mike Van de Ven, an important industry figure who is an advocate for significant fuel burn improvements sooner rather than later and helps shape airframers’ narrowbody strategy, said.
With 948 orders and commitments from 13 customers around the world since its launch this August (“Boeing 737 MAX to help recover sales momentum“, 5th Sep, 11), 2012 is destined to be a year which will see an order bonanza for the re-engined Boeing 737 MAX, highlighting the strong industry demand for re-engined aircraft which deliver significant fuel burn savings and reduce the persistently high fuel cost.
“We will have 1,300 to 1,400 firm orders by this time next year, certainly,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) chief executive Jim Albaugh told Reuters.
737 MAX’s configuration continues to evolve
Interestingly, Southwest Airlines, an all Boeing 737 operator and a loyal Boeing customer, did an “extensive analysis” between the competing Airbus A320neo (new engine option) and the Boeing 737 MAX family aircraft before choosing the 737 MAX which the Dallas-based low-cost carrier (LCC) with a New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) stock symbol of LUV deemed as a “better fit”.
“We did do comparisons between the 737 MAX and the Airbus neo and both airplanes deliver substantial improvements on their existing aircraft. That decision was not made lightly and was not made without a lot of work and analysis,” Southwest Airlines senior vice president (SVP) and chief operating officer (COO) Mike Van de Ven said.
“But given the choice of a re-engine with derivatives from the existing airplane we concluded that the 737 MAX with its improved economics, its fleet commonality and our network fit was clearly the choice for Southwest Airlines,” Van de Ven added.
“We gave it a very, very serious look, closer than we had ever looked at Airbus. We spent a lot of time understanding how it would perform our missions. At the end of the day we decided MAX better fit our profile. We did not use [Airbus] as a negotiating tactic. We were dead serious. The neo is a good product,” Southwest Airlines senior vice president (SVP) of technical operations Brian Hirshman commented.
“For instance, Midway, that has got shorter field runways and given the weight characteristics of the aircraft we felt that the MAX was just a better fit all around for that kind of mission profile,” Hirshman explained.
Most importantly, being the launch customer gives Southwest Airlines a significant say on the re-engined Boeing 737 MAX’s firm configuration, which will not be frozen until mid-2013.
Southwest Airlines chief operating officer (COO) Mike Van de Ven said “most of the big parameters have been defined” and performance guarantees have been provided.
“We are still dialing in some of the details. We will make sure this product delivers exactly what Southwest wants,” Boeing 737 chief programme engineer John Hamilton stressed.
One of the most important upgrades to the Boeing 737 MAX, if not the most, is the CFM International Leap-1B engine with a customised core which will deliver the bulk of the aircraft’s 10%-12% reduction in fuel burn per seat over the existing 737-800 NG (Next-generation).
Boeing picked the 68-inch (168 centimetres) option as the optimum fan size for the 737 MAX, calling it a “sweet spot” between fuel burn saving, weight and drag of the engine (“Boeing 737 MAX gains traction as configuration being defined“, 14th Nov, 11). This view held by Boeing and engine-maker CFM International, a joint-venture between General Electric (GE) and France’s Snecma, was endorsed by Southwest’s executive vice president (EVP) of technical operations Brian Hirshman.
“We spent a tremendous amount of time to understand the differences. Sixty-eight [inches fan size] does appear to be optimal size for the airplane. There is this illusion that bigger is better. We actually agree with Boeing and CFM,” Hirshman told flightglobal Pro.
According to Aspire Aviation‘s sources at the airframer, the larger CFM Leap-1B engine is going to feature a more “squash-bottomed” engine nacelle than today’s CFM56-7BE engine to house the customised core while maintaining a sufficient amount of ground clearance, which is at 17 inches on the existing 737 NG aircraft, cautioning the bottom of the engine nacelle will look considerably more flattened than artists’ renderings released so far.
Engine-maker CFM International could not be reached for commenting on the shape of the Leap-1B’s engine nacelle at press time.
A noteworthy point is, in the meantime, Boeing’s regional director of product marketing Anita Polt said the nose-gear extension will be “no more than eight inches, but probably less than that” while adding the 787-styled tail cone will contribute 1% of fuel burn improvement to the 10%-12% fuel burn savings delivered by the 737 MAX, flightglobal Pro reported.
Meanwhile, Southwest’s significant influence on the re-engined narrowbody aircraft’s development is likely to see Boeing adhere to its minimum change philosophy indicated by senior company executives, a painful lesson learnt on the beleaguered 787 Dreamliner programme resulting in more than 3 years of agonising delays and US$18 billion of gross inventory in addition to US$9.7 billion of deferred production cost (“Boeing posts stellar 2011 third-quarter profit amid 787 & 747-8 concerns“, 1st Nov, 11).
“We tried to stay with a commonality theme. We wanted this to be as much commonality as we can compared to the 737 NG. Of course, we wanted to improve upon efficiency and productivity around the airplane, so we have been working closely with Boeing and it is 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,” Southwest Airlines senior vice president (SVP) of technical operations Brian Hirshman conceded.
Notwithstanding this and make no mistake, a number of studies currently undertaken by the Chicago-based airframer, including the raked wingtip and a higher maximum take-off weight (MTOW) to boost the 737 MAX’s payload/range capability, especially on the largest variant 737 MAX 9, are still ongoing.
Despite further improving the re-engined aircraft’s fuel burn by less than 1% while enhancing its payload/range capability, Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources cited the operational constraints at US airports and Southwest’s launch customer status as reasons that a raked wingtip similar to the one found on the P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircraft, is unlikely to find its way to the final 737 MAX configuration.
Sources pointed out that the blended winglet-equipped Boeing 737-800 with a wingspan of 35.8 metres (117.5 ft) is already at the upper limit of US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gate type A, and adopting a raked wingtip such as the P-8A Poseidon’s one with a wingspan of 37.64 m (123.6 ft), will cause the 737 MAX to be categorised as Airplane Design Group (ADG) 4 aircraft instead of ADG Group 3 aircraft, thus demanding gate type B at US airports and “pushing the envelope” too far which will prompt costly airport modifications.
The FAA defines Group 3 aircraft as those with a wingspan between 79 and 118 feet whereas the Group 4 aircraft as those with a wingspan between 118 and 171 feet.
The same sources also added Boeing wants the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to lift its ADG Group 3 limit by 2 metres (6.56 feet) to accommodate the raked wingtip, although it is unclear on ICAO’s response and its implications on the 737 MAX’s final configuration.
Other studies, such as a variable area fan nozzle (VAFN) which promises a fuel burn reduction of up to 2% and is going to be tested on board an American Airlines Boeing 737-800 in August or September 2012 as part of the continuous lower energy emissions noise (CLEEN) programme, as well as a passive, retrofittable hybrid laminar flow control (HLFC) which yields a 0.5%-1% reduction in drag, are still undergoing evaluations and a decision is not expected anytime soon.
The contentious fuel burn debate
When Airbus’ chief operating officer (COO) for customers John Leahy presented at the Credit Suisse Aerospace and Defense conference on 31st November, Leahy challenged Boeing’s claims that the Boeing 737 MAX 8 will have a 4% lower fuel burn per seat and a 7% lower total operating cost, including aircraft procurement cost and maintenance cost, this has further intensified the contentious fuel burn debate between the two transatlantic rivals on which one’s aircraft is the most fuel efficient one.
Leahy contended that the existing 150-seat A320 without sharklets burns about the same amount of fuel as the 157-seat 737-800 with the CFM56-7BE engine on a 800 nautical miles (nm) mission, whereas Boeing countered by saying the 162-seat 737-800 burns 7% less fuel per seat than a 150-seat A320 on a 500 nm sector. Airbus also claims the 124-seat A319 burns 1% more fuel than the 124-seat 737-700 on an 800 nm sector, whereas its 185-seat A321 burns 3% less fuel than a 173-seat 737-900ER (extended range) airplane. Boeing refuted this claim, saying its 180-seat 737-900ER is 11.3% and 9.5% more fuel efficient than a 180-seat A321 on a trip-fuel and seat-mile fuel basis on a 500 nm sector, according to an AirInsight report titled “Comparing 757 Replacements”.
Similarly, Airbus claims the 150-seat A320neo (new engine options) will be 7% more fuel efficient than a 157-seat 737 MAX 8, whereas the 124-seat A319neo and 185-seat A321neo are 6% and 11% more fuel efficient than the competing 124-seat 737 MAX 7 and 173-seat 737 MAX 9, respectively. Boeing countered that the 162-seat 737 MAX 8 will have a 4% lower fuel burn per seat and a 7% operating cost advantage versus the 150-seat A320neo on a 500 nm mission, while Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) vice president (VP) in business development and strategic integration Nicole Piasecki reiterated that “the 737 MAX 9 [has] about 5% better operating economics for its seat-mile economics and its trip costs will be about 6% better [than the A321neo]. Its operating economics are significantly better”.
In addition, Airbus chief operating officer (COO) customers John Leahy explained the rationale behind the 15% fuel burn reduction of the a CFM Leap-1A-powered A320neo versus a CFM56-powered A320 aircraft, with both 7% reductions in specific fuel consumption (SFC) brought by an improved core and 32% more fan area, as well as a 1% reduction from powerplant integration plus a 2.4% reduction in fuel burn resulted from the introduction of sharklets, which is slightly offset by a less than 2 tonnes increase in manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW) and extra drag that negated 2.7% of the total fuel burn saving.
In contrast, the CFM Leap-1B engine will bring a 10% fuel burn reduction to the 737 MAX’s engine specific fuel consumption (SFC), consisting of a 6% reduction from a customised improved engine core, a 3.5% reduction in SFC from 24% more fan area and another 0.5% reduction from powerplant integration. However, a 0.5% reduction in fuel burn resulting from aerodynamic improvements is insufficient to offset the 2.5% fuel burn penalty resulting from the extra manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW) and extra drag, thereby resulting from an overall fuel burn improvement of 8% of the 737 MAX 8 versus the CFM56-7BE-powered 737-800 NG (Next-Generation) aircraft on a 800 nm sector.
Importantly, Aspire Aviation continues to believe that the Boeing 737 MAX family aircraft has the fuel burn advantage with a short stage length of 500 nautical miles (nm) owing to the aircraft’s lighter airframe resulting in better climb profile and short-field performance, of which Boeing 737 chief programme engineer John Hamilton says the 737-900ER (extended range) is 10,000 lbs lighter than the A321, whereas the A320neo (new engine option) family aircraft has the fuel burn advantage with a longer stage length of 800 nm or above due to its better cruise performance.
Meanwhile, while the re-engined 737 MAX 9 is likely to have a slight fuel burn per seat disadvantage against the A321neo (new engine option) offering, which an AirInsight analysis puts at 2% while the 737 MAX 9 has a 4% better cash operating cost (COC) per trip at 4% less capacity than the A321neo, Boeing is very likely to introduce higher maximum take-off weight (MTOW) to enhance the aircraft’s payload/range capability to make it a closer 757 replacement aircraft, according to Aspire Aviation‘s sources at the Chicago-based airframer.
These sources say the structural reinforcements necessitated by the heavier and bigger CFM International CFM Leap-1B engine, mainly to the “localised strengthening” on the fuselage and the centre wing-box, coupled with the bigger CFM Leap-1B engine, contributed to a 2,000 kg (4,409 lbs) increase in the 737 MAX’s manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW). In comparison, the A320neo with a CFM Leap-1A engine weighs around 1,361 kg (3,000 lbs) more than the existing A320 aircraft.
The payload/range capability of the 737 MAX, these sources add, is likely to be improved by the partial fly-by-wire system on its spoilers which reduces the aircraft’s weight and redistributes loads inwards as well as a higher maximum take-off weight (MTOW), not taking into account potential weight-saving opportunities on the 737 MAX which the Chicago-based airframer is currently exploring.
“One of our requirements was that the MAX was going to need to fly essentially at least the same mission as the NG, so same range, same payload, if not better, and we are satisfied that the MAX will do that,” Southwest Airlines senior vice president (SVP) Brian Hirshman said.
“The MAX is going to have the capability to have increased payload/range and right now we are working closely with Southwest and other airline customers, really understanding the market requirements out there that we dial on what the exact payload/range capabilities need to be with this airplane,” Boeing 737 chief programme engineer John Hamilton said at the Southwest Airlines press conference.
Strong business case
The business case of the 737 MAX remains strong, as are those of other re-engined aircraft such as the A320neo and Embraer’s re-engined E-jet family aircraft, as persistently high fuel prices dent the airline industry’s profitability, thus demanding significant fuel burn improvement sooner rather than later.
This shortens the development span of an aircraft programme and demands lower cost in the research and development (R&D) process while bringing step-change in fuel efficiency, a key pillar of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s global supply chain philosophy whose lax oversight and control, as well as workmanship issues ultimately led this vision of around-the-clock design process turned into a well-documented nightmare. Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) chief executive Jim Albaugh, however, said the company is determined not to repeat these painful mistakes on the 737 MAX programme.
“What I want to do this time around is underpromise and overdeliver,” Albaugh was quoted as saying in a Reuters report.
“I never again want to be talking to a customer about how I have impacted their business plan because I am late and because the airplane does not give the performance that they wanted,” Albaugh acknowledged.
Boeing had previously indicated its preference to launch a clean-sheet composite new small airplane (NSA) which will bring a more significant 20% fuel burn reduction as well as a 30% reduction in maintenance cost, before its hands were forced by Airbus’ breakthrough in securing part of the American Airlines’ 460 narrowbody aircraft orders this August.
In stark contrast to Airbus’ claims that Boeing may have to revert back to the new small airplane (NSA) in order to compete with the A320neo, the underlying culprit for Boeing not to do so was surprisingly pointed out by Airbus as well.
“The [composite] single aisle is not ready for 2020-21. It would probably be built to a large degree out of aluminium. We have not figured out how to get the theoretical efficiencies out of composites, especially when you scale them down and difficulties with the manufacturing process,” Airbus chief operating officer (COO) customers John Leahy was quoted by flightglobal Pro at the Credit Suisse Aerospace and Defense Conference on 31st November.
“Right now we are building the [A350 and 787] airplane too much like a metal airplane. It does not look like Boeing is getting tremendous savings in [their 787 barrel process] either. It is not obvious that we know how to use in manufacturing techniques now composites to their best advantage. I think after 10 years of building the 787 and A350, and learning how you can work with composites, until a whole new generation of our engineers and Boeing engineers having grown up with aluminium grow up with composites, then we are going to see the breakthroughs.
“If you commit to an airplane for 2020-2021, you are basically freezing the technology today,” Leahy commented.
Indeed, the second-generation out-of-autoclave (OoA) composite technology which is crucial in enabling aircraft manufacturers to produce composite narrowbody aircraft at a production rate of 50 or 60 airplanes a month, such as Australia’s patented Quickstep technology that reduces the curing time by a dramatic 43%, a higher delamination resistance and a higher fibre-matrix adhesion achieved through “lower initial resin viscosity”, needs time to mature and find its way into wider aerospace applications, as are nanotechnologies such as the carbon nanotubes reinforced polymer (CNRP) on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) that promise to be 17% stronger and yet 30% lighter than the carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) found on the 787 Dreamliner.
Furthermore, Aspire Aviation thinks the 737 MAX enables Boeing to maintain the existing duopoly with Airbus while freeing up scarce financial and engineering resources to launch the stretched 787-10X variant as well as the 777-8X/-9X that promises to bring a 10%-15% fuel burn reduction to the 777-300ER, which Aspire Aviation‘s sources indicate their launches are likely to be in 2012 and 2013, respectively, with respective entry into service (EIS) dates in 2018 and 2019 (“New Boeing 777X likely to be a highly efficient derivative“, 14th Sep, 11).
“Right now on the NG (Next Generation), we have more firm orders than they have on the A320 classic. And I have full expectation that we will split the market on the MAX and the neo as well,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) chief executive Jim Albaugh commented.
In conclusion, with the Boeing 737 MAX making progress such as the landmark machinists union deal that secures the 737 MAX’s production at its Renton, Washington facility, it sees a bright year ahead driven by strong customer demands and an order bonanza for the 737 MAX, similar to the one enjoyed by Airbus in 2011, is very likely to take place in 2012 amid a backdrop of significant global economic uncertainties. In the end the 737 MAX is going to be a good aircraft enabling Boeing to maintain its duopoly with its arch-rival Airbus in the narrowbody segment as well as gaining strategic advantages in freeing up financial and engineering resources to improve the already efficient, popular 777 aircraft that will strengthen the Chicago-based company’s market leadership in the lucrative widebody segment.
Updated on 21st December with corrected manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW) increase figure to around 2,000 kg (4,409 lbs)