Boeing currently holds orders for more than 700 737 MAX 10 aircraft across 20 airlines*. It is the second most ordered variant of the MAX family. And if the company is forced to upgrade the flight deck to meet new safety certification requirements those could all be at risk.
In an exclusive interview with Aviation Week, CEO David Calhoun said the MAX 10 would not be developed if it required meeting the new standards. “If I lose the fight [to avoid that requirement], I lose the fight.”
When the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act became law in late 2020 it required updates to any new aircraft certifications issued. Boeing managed to negotiate a two year delay in enforcement, however, expecting that the FAA would sign off on its MAX 7 and MAX 10 variants before the end of this year.
That is now unlikely, at least for the MAX 10. And if Congress does not grant Boeing another extension related to the new flight crew alerting requirements, the type could vanish.
Congress could relent, providing Boeing more time to deliver the MAX 10 under the old rules. That’s what Calhoun is pushing for. And in many ways it makes sense. Having the MAX 10 operate with different alerting functions than the other MAX variants means more training (and associated expense) for pilots. Airlines would also likely prefer to avoid that in order to control their costs.
But for Members of Congress it is more difficult decision to make. The new rule exists specifically because of compromises made in the MAX design and implementation, favoring reduced costs over increased training.
Maybe they’ll make that decision, favoring the economic benefits of the additional planes sold and subassembly units manufactured in their districts. If they don’t, however, what will the airlines do?
What’s an airline to do?
Atop the list of those potentially impacted sits United Airlines. The carrier holds orders for 250 MAX 10s; 150 of those were added just last year. These planes were a critical component in the company’s growth plans and fleet refresh, replacing older Airbus and Boeing jets more than 20 years old today.
Losing access to the largest of the MAX variants means slower growth for United. Even if it swaps some for MAX 8 or MAX 9 options, an idea Boeing is reportedly working through with customers, it will lose about 10% of the planned capacity.
More significant, however, is losing the planned replacement planes for its premium transcon service. A subfleet of the MAX 10 was expected to replace the 757-200s, offering lie-flat beds in a premium-heavy configuration. Yes, those seats can be installed in the smaller variants. But it will be much harder to drive profitable economics with the smaller cabin footprint.
Delta Air Lines has long been talking with Boeing about an order. Most recently it was tipped to be considering announcing a firm commitment for 100 MAX 10s just a couple weeks from now at the Farnborough International Air Show.
Much like United, Delta has an aging fleet it would like to up-gauge and replace with more efficient models. Would the airline make that commitment with uncertainty about whether the planes will ever exist?
Alaska Airlines also holds orders for 60 MAX 10s, making it one of the larger customers of the type. And as an (almost) all-Boeing customer, its options are limited.
Most of the rest of the larger orders come from airlines in Asia. VietJet plans to take 80 and Lion Air at least 50. Garuda signed for 34 MAX 10s, with 50 unspecified models to be selected.
Virgin Australia is one of few airlines that only ordered the MAX 10 variant. Would it be satisfied with a smaller model?
How much of a discount would Boeing have to offer to make a smaller variant seem reasonable? And how much of a margin is Boeing willing to give up to not have to develop the new flight crew alerting features?
MAXed out demand
Boeing’s main leverage, somewhat ironically, is that airlines don’t have much of a choice. At least not if they want a plane in the next five years. Sure, China’s Big 3 just secured 300 delivery slots from Airbus over the next few years. But ultimately that makes it even harder to find a few hundred more delivery slots to help out United or Lion Air or Delta when the MAX 10s were supposed to be delivered.
And that risk, in so many ways, is the other half of why, perhaps, Congress has to give in, even though that’s a terrible decision to have to make.
The global aviation industry cannot afford for one supplier to become too dominant, at least not if it wants to enjoy continued growth as it has over the past couple decades. Losing the MAX 10 would almost certainly tip the scales further in that direction.
There are also foreign certification concerns. Will other regulators allow the MAX 10 to enter service in their respective regions if Congress extends the waiver? Odds point to yes, but there is some risk with that path.
*The numbers are soft, as not all airlines declared a mix and some will change over time anyways. But a few airlines committed to the type in a big way, and this won’t be an easy fix.
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