By Pete Combs, AINonline
As Boeing's newest aircraft taxied out for a downwind takeoff on Renton Municipal Airport Runway 34 on April 13, even the weather appeared to cooperate in what the company says was a smooth, first flight for the newest iteration of an old favorite - the 737 Max 9.
Project engineer Mike Teal brushed off the 90-minute launch delay, attributing it to a problem with communications-not the new aircraft's communications, but communications between test data sending systems on the aircraft and receivers on the ground.
"The uplink went down," Teal told reporters.
The Max 9 took off from Renton (RNT) at 10:52 a.m. local time, flying into a sky of broken clouds and turning east toward Moses Lake. Flight commander Christine Walsh, who served as the pilot-flying as the aircraft landed at Boeing Field (BFI) more than two-and-a-half hours after takeoff, said the aircraft flew "just like a 737," as she made her short approach in a direct crosswind from the right on Runway 13R. It was both a compliment to Boeing's engineers and a warm assurance to the crewmembers who will fly the aircraft in years to come.
So, what comes next in Boeing's 737 Max series?
Boeing expects the smallest of the line, the Max 7, to roll off the assembly line in 2018 and enter service with its first operator in the second quarter of 2019. But another, still-unlaunched model in development known as the Max 10X might show even more commercial promise.
"This is an airplane that's on the drawing board today," said Boeing marketing vice president Randy Tinseth. "We are actively working with our customers on this airplane. It is our intention to launch the airplane later this year and should we launch the aircraft, that airplane would come into service in 2020."
Tinseth said the Max 10 will involve only a minimal stretch of the Max 9, allowing for another two passenger rows.
Although Boeing said the Max 10 remains in the concept phase, 737 Max program boss Keith Leverkuhn made it clear last week that customers want it.
"I'm happy to say the customers are looking at the economics of the airplane and that's something that's really intriguing for them," Leverkuhn said.
Although Tinseth said the 737-900ER, the Max 9 and the Max 10 will all serve to replace some portion of the 757 market, the new midsize airplane (NMA) under study will fulfill all the 757's capabilities and far more.
"The NMA would have more range capability than the 757, he added, and would be significantly more efficient," said Tinseth. "It would be sized to really complement the single-aisles and widebodies of today. That's where we're focused."
Leverkuhn agreed. "Clearly, the -10 does not infringe on that NMA space," he said. "Mainly because of size and because of range. The NMA has a very different market than the -10."
In fact, an NMA appears likely to involve a twin-aisle design, signaled airline, airframe and leasing executives attending the March 5 to 7 International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) conference in San Diego. Boeing remains in consultation with airlines and leasing companies about what now has become known as the 797, which, according to Air Lease executive chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy would also almost certainly offer a choice of two engine types.
The NMA would be Boeing's first non-derivative design since the troubled 787 Dreamliner. While Boeing appears to have fulfilled its "Right at First Flight" mantra with the 737 derivatives, whether the company will exhibit the same level of proficiency in execution when it comes to bringing something completely new from the design phase into reality stands as an open question.
During ISTAT, SMBC Aviation Capital CEO Peter Barrett asserted that while Boeing could undoubtedly design an airplane that airlines would want to operate, its development and production costs will ultimately determine its viability. "I think the critical challenge to them will be actually can they learn all the lessons that they've taken from programs over the last couple of years and apply them in a way to give a sticker price that's going to make sense," he concluded.