Boeing 737 MAX heads Down Under as part of flight test program

Boeing 737 MAX 8 N8704Q at Darwin Airport on Australia Day 2017. (Tony Kao)
Boeing 737 MAX 8 N8704Q at Darwin Airport on Australia Day. (Tony Kao)

Boeing’s next generation narrowbody the 737 MAX is in Australia as part its flight test program, with 737 MAX 8 development aircraft N8704Q arriving in Darwin a little before 1730 local time on Thursday.

Since landing in Darwin, N8704Q, the fourth of four 737 MAX 8 development aircraft built, has flown to Alice Springs, as well as conducting a number of flights that took off and returned to Darwin of between three and five hours duration, flight tracking website FlightAware shows.

Asked what testing the aircraft was undertaking in Australia, a Boeing spokesperson told Australian Aviation in a brief statement via email: “The MAX is there to do some standard environmental testing.”

Boeing has three 737 MAX customers in Oceania – Virgin Australia is due to receive the first of 40 MAX aircraft on order in 2018, Air Niugini has put pen to paper for four MAX aircraft arriving from 2020 and Fiji Airways has five 737 MAX 8s slated for delivery from 2018.

The MAX, Boeing’s fourth iteration of its 737 program, began its flight test program at the end of January 2016, when the first 737 MAX development aircraft, N8701Q Spirit of Renton, took off from Boeing’s Renton, Washington State site (where all 737s are built).

Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg said during the company’s quarterly earnings call on January 25 (US time) the MAX flight test program showed the aircraft was performing well.

“We are going to begin delivering aircraft in the first half of this year and we are on track to deliver our first MAX in the second quarter of 2017,” Muilenburg said during the earnings call, according to a transcript published by SeekingAlpha.

“The MAX will end up being about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the total 737 deliveries this year, so a meaningful portion but a fraction as we begin ramping up.

“Our team is doing a great job in the factory to make sure that we continue to deliver NGs while we ramp up the MAX. The production line preparation is on track.”

Muilenburg reaffirmed previous guidance that the 737 production rate would rise from 42 aircraft per month currently to 47 per month in the third quarter of calendar 2017. It would then increase further to 52 per month and 57 per month in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

“And importantly, even at the 57 per month rate, we continue to be oversold. Simply put, this is a big attractive market and the 737 family’s position within it is solid,” Muilenburg said.

The MAX has garnered 3,606 orders at the end of December 2016, according to the Boeing website. The aircraft competes with the Airbus A320neo Family, which has been flying with a number of airlines since January 2016. The Airbus website showed the company had received 5,069 orders for the neo.

Qantas is expected to run a competition between the 737 MAX and A320neo at some future point for the replacement of its existing 737-800 fleet.