The Baby Boeing

Part 3 – The New Generation

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A Boeing 737-800 of American Airlines. Note the winglets, a common option on the NG series

In part two we learned about the highly successful second generation 737, now known as the “Classic”. We also touched on the emergence of a new competitor. In this part we’ll take a look at Boeing’s reaction to the new competition, the passing of an old competitor and the arrival of the latest version of the 737.

By the early 1990’s the 737 Classic was selling strongly for Boeing but there was something rather unpleasant on the horizon. That was the Airbus A320. Entering service in 1988 the A320 had started slow but was rapidly building momentum and in 1992 Boeing’s largest customer, United Airlines, made a shock announcement it would be introducing the A320 to its fleet as a replacement for its older Boeing 727s. This spurred Boeing into action.

The New Kid In Town

So what exactly about the A320 made it so special? How did it stack up against the 737?

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The A320 – the 737’ s latest arch-nemesis

For starters the A320 was a clean sheet design specifically meant to compete with the 737. The A320 was larger than the 737-300 and had a similar passenger capacity to the 737-400. It’s six-abreast fuselage was 8.4 inches wider than the 737 so each passenger could have just under an inch and a half extra width on their seat. The A320 featured extensive use of composites in the structure to reduce weight. The wing was more efficient than the 737, the flight deck was state of the art and featured full fly-by-wire flight controls. Finally the A320 was powered by the CFM56-5; a more advanced derivative of the CFM56-3 which powered the 737 with more thrust (25,000lbf) and greater fuel efficiency. The A320 was also later offered with the option of the International Aero Engines (a consortium led by Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney) V2500 engine which offered the same thrust as the CFM56-5 but with 4% better fuel efficiency. Speaking of which the A320 also offered significantly increased fuel capacity over the 737.

To put it in perspective the 737-400 could carry a typical number of 147 passengers in a two class seating configuration over a maximum distance of 2,000 nautical miles. The A320-200 could carry a typical 150 passengers in wider, more comfortable seats over a maximum distance of 3,300 nautical miles and at a cruise speed approximately 26 knots faster.

In a lot of very important metrics, the A320 was just a better aeroplane.

Seattle Replies

Boeing began a consultation with the airlines and asked them how they’d like to see the 737 improved. The airlines were quite vocal in what they wanted; further, higher, faster. In November 1993 the Boeing 737 New Generation (NG) was launched.

Much like the earlier Classic the NG was to be a family of models with varying passenger capacities. The NG featured a new design wing which was both more efficient and optimised for higher speed cruise. The larger wing also increased the fuel capacity. The flight deck was updated to the latest standards and the passenger cabin was also updated with features found on the new Boeing 777 such as curved ceiling panels and re-profiled overhead bins to create a more spacious environment. The CFM56-3 of the Classic was replaced with the new CFM56-7 which was more powerful (up to 27,000lbf versus a maximum of 23,500lbf on the -3), more efficient and quieter.

Compared to their earlier counterparts in the Classic family, the new NG family would carry more passengers further, higher and faster.

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The updated flight deck of the 737NG

Meet the Family

The first of the NG family to enter service was the 737-700 in 1998 with launch customer Southwest Airlines. The -700 was intended to supersede the -300 and compete with the A319. It could carry a maximum of 149 passengers and had a maximum range of 3,000 nautical miles.

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A Southwest Airlines 737-700

The next variant to enter service was the 737-800 with launch customer Hapag-Lloyd also in 1998. The -800 was intended to supersede the -400, replace the MD80 and MD-90 following the demise of McDonnell Douglas (more on that later) and directly compete with the A320. It could carry a maximum of 189 passengers and had a maximum range of 2,900 nautical miles. The -800 was also marketed as a replacement for the last Boeing 727s which were still lingering in service.

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A 737-800 of Delta Air Lines

The third variant of the NG family was the 737-600 and entered service with launch customer Scandinavian Airlines in 1998. This was a shortened version intended to replace the 737-500 and compete directly with the A318. It could carry a maximum of 130 passengers and had a maximum range of 3,200 nautical miles. Whereas the 737-500 proved quite popular the -600 had slow sales and Boeing removed it from sale in 2012 after only 69 had been delivered.

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A 737-600 of Scandinavian Airlines. No winglets this time!

The fourth and final major variant of the NG family was the 737-900 which entered service with launch customer Alaska Airlines in 2001. The -900 was a stretched version of the -800. It had a larger passenger cabin than the -800, but because Boeing retained the same number of exits the passenger capacity was limited to 189, the same as the -800. The -900 also had the same maximum take off weight. Essentially it traded range for a larger passenger cabin and not much else. This variant experienced poor sales too with only 55 being delivered before it was supplanted by the 737-900ER.

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A 737-900 of KLM. Much maligned, the -900 was ultimately superseded by the far more capable -900ER

These were the initial major variants of the NG family, but along the way Boeing also introduced a number of sub-variants.

The Boeing Business Jet 1 (BBJ1) was developed from the 737-700 airframe but featured the wings and undercarriage of the 737-800 and additional fuel tanks for intercontinental range. This was followed up by the BBJ2 which was based on the 737-800 airframe.

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A BBJ1 belonging to the Kazakhstan Government

The BBJ1 was later developed into the 737-700ER which was first delivered to ANA in 2007 where they flew it on an all business class route from Tokyo to Mumbai. The 737-700ER has a maximum range of 5,500 nautical miles in a 126 seat two class configuration.

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A 737-700ER of the Japanese airlines ANA

In 2006 Boeing addressed the slow sales of the 737-900 by introducing the 737-900ER. The new variant featured an extra two over wing emergency exits, increased fuel capacity and a redesigned aft pressure bulkhead. This increased maximum passenger capacity to 220 and yielded a maximum range of 2,950 nautical miles. The -900ER was intended as a replacement for the 757-200 and a direct competitor to the A321. The launch customer, Lion Air, put the aircraft into service in 2007 and since then the type has proved very popular with 445 orders received. The 737-900ER also went on to be the basis of the BBJ3.

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A 737-900ER of Alaska Airlines. Note the “scimitar” winglets

The NG also formed the basis of a variety of military variants. An Airborne Early Warning & Control variant, known as the Wedgetail has been developed for Australia and subsequently ordered by South Korea and Turkey. The C-40 Clipper was developed as a VIP transport for the US Navy to replace the old C-9 Skytrain II (which was based on the DC-9). Finally the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol variant was developed for the US Navy to replace the P-3 Orion. This variant is in service with the US Navy, India and Australia. Both the UK and Norway have placed orders for future delivery.

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A Wedgetail of the Royal Australian Air Force

Success? Success!

So how well has the 737NG done?

As of 31st December 2017 Boeing has received 7,094 orders for the NG family and delivered 6,658.

Not bad at all really.

Wait A Minute… What Happened to McDonnell Douglas?

The short answer is “a long story”. The early 1990’s were a torrid time for McDonnell Douglas. They dropped the ball badly with the MD-11 (a successor to the DC-10) and the C-17 Globemaster III military airlifter they were building was mired in technical issues, delays and cost overruns. Finally, their update to the MD-80, the imaginatively named MD-90 wasn’t up to scratch; largely because it had to be done on a shoestring budget because of the costs associated with putting the MD-11 right and the financial black hole that was the C-17. The MD-90 and the MD-11 turned out to be commercial failures. In 1996 Boeing took over McDonnell Douglas. An ignominious end for one of the great aircraft designers and manufacturers of the 20th Century.

Toulouse Strikes Back

In 2010 Airbus announced the A320neo (new engine option). This is the latest standard A320 fitted with new blended winglets (known as “sharklets”) and a choice of the new CFM LEAP or Pratt & Whitney PW1000 engines. The A320neo offered an extra 500 nautical mile range or 2,000kg increase in payload over the original A320 and a 15% reduction in fuel burn. Airbus made a hugely significant breakthrough with a major Boeing customer in 2011 when American Airlines ordered 130 A320neo and 130 A320ceo (current engine option).

In 2011 Boeing responded with the 737 MAX. The MAX is a very similar upgrade to the NG featuring the CFM LEAP engine, a new passenger cabin based on that of the Boeing 787 and aerodynamic refinements such as new split wing tips. This resulted in a similar improvement over the 737NG’s performance including a 15% reduction in fuel burn. A revised flight deck now features four large displays akin to the 787.

Enter MAX

The MAX series was first offered in -7, -8 and -9 variants which were direct replacements of their NG series equivalents respectively.

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The CFM LEAP fitted to the 737 MAX
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Detail of the new split wing tip on the 737 MAX

The first MAX variant to enter service was the MAX 8 with Malindo Air in September 2017.

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A 737-8 MAX of Norwegian. This airline features portraits of notable people on the tails of their aircraft. In this case Sir Freddie Laker. I went to the same school as Sir Freddie

A 737-8 MAX of Norwegian. This airline features portraits of notable people on the tails of their aircraft. In this case Sir Freddie Laker. I went to the same school as Sir Freddie.

The MAX 9 is due to enter service with Thai Lion Air in March 2018. The MAX 9 has had had a rough time, being outsold by the competing A321neo at a ratio of more than 5:1.

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Boeing’s prototype MAX 9

The MAX 7 has thus far sold very slowly with less than 100 on the order books. Service entry with launch customer Southwest Airlines is due next year.

Following the poor sales of the MAX 9 versus the A321neo Boeing went back to the drawing board and came up with the MAX 10. This is a further stretch of the MAX 9 with a maximum capacity of 230 passengers and a maximum range of 3,000 nautical miles. It also required a new undercarriage, being the largest and heaviest member of the 737 family to date. By the end of the Paris Air Show in 2017 the MAX 10 had secured 361 orders, albeit 214 of those are conversions from previous MAX 9 orders. The MAX 10 design was frozen in February 2018 and service entry is expected to be in 2019.

Boeing have also offered the MAX 200 which is a high density 200 seat version of the MAX 8. Ryanair have ordered 100 of this type for delivery beginning in 2019. Enjoy the authentic sardine experience on your weekend break to Prague.

Finally, Boeing have also touted a proposed variant called the MAX 8ERX. This is based on the MAX 8 airframe but with the wings and undercarriage of the MAX 9. It would carry 150 passengers over a distance of 4,000 nautical miles and compete with the A321LR.

In March 2018 Boeing delivered the 10,000th 737. This was a MAX 8 for Southwest Airlines. As of the end of March 2018 Boeing has received 4,316 orders for the MAX series and delivered 86. Barring the collapse of civilisation, nuclear war or alien invasion we’ll be seeing the 737 continue to roll off the production line at Boeing’s Renton factory for many years to come.

The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Yellow(stone)

Not long after the turn of the century we began to hear about the Boeing Yellowstone Project. This was a long term plan to replace Boeing’s entire airliner product portfolio with new advanced technology types. Three designs were planned, named Y1, Y2 and Y3.

Y2 was a medium capacity wide body to replace the 767 and has now entered service as the 787.

Y3 is a large wide body to replace the 747 and 777. It’s all still highly speculative and Boeing have released no concrete information.

The Y1 was a narrow body to replace the 737 and 757. The Y1 was to have delivered a new aircraft to replace the 737 by 2020, but in 2011 Boeing delayed this in favour of developing the 737 MAX. It’s now believed Boeing plan to have the new clean sheet design ready for 2030.

So Jack Steiner Was Right After All

And that, as they say, is that. From 1968 to 2018; fifty years, four generations, over 10,000 aircraft delivered and nearly 5,000 more still on the order books. I hope next time you gaze at a 737 out of the airport terminal window you have a little more appreciation for what a remarkable achievement it has been and continues to be. And to think Boeing very nearly gave up on the 737 several times in the early years.

If you’ve enjoyed reading these articles, please do let me know and I might continue with more… perhaps with a change of pace, something more noisy, faster and deadly.

© Æthelberht 2018