MAX, Neo and the captive market

Boeing is now ready to move on to detailed design work for the baseline version of its updated 737, the 737 MAX 8, after finalising the new narrowbody’s firm configuration.

This means that the first aircraft should enter final assembly in 2015 and then begin revenue service in 3Q 2017, followed by the 737 MAX 9 in 2018 and the 737 MAX 7 in 2019.

One would expect Boeing to stick to those dates given that the MAX isn’t an all-new design and because the company must have learned lessons from a 787 programme more delayed than British trains in hot weather (it warps the tracks, apparently).

Once in the air, Boeing claims that the 737 MAX will be 13 per cent more fuel efficient than current-generation narrowbodies and eight per cent less thirsty per seat than the A320neo.

Airbus instinctively refutes those figures and claims a 15 per cent fuel consumption advantage for the Neo, though comparisons at this point are near meaningless, firstly because new technologies remain untested and secondly since both manufacturers play with data inputs to suit their marketing.

One might argue that the market will judge the truth of those claims, in which case the A320neo, with about 1,000 more orders than the 737 MAX, is the preferred choice of airlines, but even that is a shaky metric to rely upon – and not just because the A320neo has been on sale for longer.

The truth is that only a handful of carriers will swap allegiances from one airframer to another, not for reasons of loyalty, but because each has built up a network of staff, knowledge, outsourcing deals and other contracts to support its chosen aircraft type. Thus Southwest Airlines, the world’s biggest 737 operator, orders the 737 MAX, while A320-flying Easyjet and Airasia sign up for the A320neo.

Southwest said at the time of its order that it found little to choose between the performance of the MAX and the Neo, and instead emphasised “fleet commonality” and “network fit” as deciding factors.

Airbus can point to some defections by 737 operators, notably American Airlines, a previous all-Boeing operator that ordered more Neos than MAXs for its fleet renewal, and Turkish budget carrier Pegasus, which will switch outright from the 737 to the A320neo.

Those are outliers, however, in a phony war; the real battle for narrowbody orders will occur among airlines yet to be launched, be they now merely napkin-and-biro calculations or the glint in a tycoon’s eye.

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