The Southwest Airlines order on 13 December launching the 737 Max programme is a launch of the -8 version. The carrier, which has substitution rights between the -7 and the -8, has chosen to bypass the -7 for now.
Brian Hirshman, SVP Technical Operations, told Flightglobal Pro on 15 December that the carrier is up-gauging its fleet, which it began doing this year with acquisition of the 737-800 for the first time. Southwest, throughout its history since is 1971 birth, has relied on the 737-200/300/500/700, preferring smaller sized aircraft and high frequency as its business model.
As the carrier expanded into congested and slot controlled airports and as fuel prices went up, the extra capacity and lower seat mile costs of the larger -800 prompted a change from Southwest’s long-standing practice of buying only the -700 variant.
Hirshman said Southwest by-passed the 737-7 even though it is larger than the Boeing 717 it is inheriting from the acquisition of AirTran. The 717 will seat 117 passengers in Southwest’s configuration when the two airlines are integrated. At the press conference announcing the order, Southwest’s officials said they are prepared to operate the 717 the full lease terms to the end of this decade and into the next. But they also said they will be talking to Boeing about these airplanes’ future.
Hirshman told Flightglobal Pro that Southwest evaluated the Bombardier CSeries early on but it was too small to make the final cut. The Airbus A320neo received serious consideration and was not used as a bargaining chip, he said.
“We gave it a very, very serious look, closer than we had ever looked at Airbus,” Hirshman said. “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.”
An independent consultant with knowledge of the competition told Flightglobal Pro that Airbus came closer to winning the order than people realize.
Southwest, during its press conference, cited 737 Max fuel savings figures of 10-11% compared with Boeing’s oft-stated target of 10-12%. Hirshman said Southwest’s analysis for the 737-7 and 737-8 concluded the former figures are “good numbers.”
Hirshman also said Southwest’s analysis supported the CFM and Boeing statements that a 68 inch fan for the LEAP engine is optimal for the 737, despite the very public argument set forth by Airbus that the 737 LEAP’s smaller fan compared with neo’s 78 inch LEAP engine won’t be as efficient.
“We spent a tremendous amount of time to understand the differences,” Hirshman said. “Sixty eight does appear to be optimal size for the airplane. There is this illusion that bigger is better. We actually agree with Boeing and CFM.” The customized core will make the difference, Hirshman said. The core will be standard LEAP architecture and design but will be specifically designed for the 737 Max.
Nonetheless, in evaluating the A320neo, which is powered by another version of the LEAP as well as Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbo Fan (GTF), Hirshman praised the GTF. “We were quite intrigued with GTF technology and we think it is pretty bold and innovative. We think it has a great future in commercial aviation. The concept is not new and makes complete sense. Intuitively it made sense. Pratt has a good product there,” he said.
Southwest is scheduled to get only four 737 Max in 2017. Hirshman confirmed that this means a fourth quarter entry-into-service.
“However, it’s pretty early in the program,” he said. “There is potential it can move to the left. At this point in the program, Boeing guarantees a certain number of airplanes per year. When it gets 24-36 months out, they begin defining delivery dates.”