With almost one out of every 10 current-generation 737 and MAX on Boeing's firm order backlog destined for the Lion Group of Indonesia, the aircraft manufacturer is paying close attention to the wishes of this increasingly influential customer.

Lion not only launched the 737-900ER, which subsequently led to large orders from U.S. mainline operators, it also launched the follow-on MAX in Asia and is set to be a key operator of the type throughout the fast-growing region.

Yet even though production of the 737 is accelerating to unprecedented rates on the way to 47 per month by 2017, Boeing and Lion reluctantly concede that not much can be done to accelerate deliveries in the short- to mid-term to satisfy the group's rapacious demands. “We just can't get them fast enough,” says Lion Group President Director Rusdi Kirana.

Speaking to Aviation Week at a ceremony to mark the handover of Lion's 100th Next-Generation 737, Kirana says that despite the realities of Boeing's sold-out line, he continues to talk with the manufacturer in hopes of speeding up deliveries of 737-800/-900ERs to capitalize on the rapid market expansion of its main airline operation, Lion Air. The group's regional affiliates are on a fast-growth trajectory as well. The Lion Group has more than 300 additional 737s in the order backlog. This includes 230 twinjets ordered in a major deal in February 2012, of which 201 are the 737 MAX version, making the Indonesian operator the largest single customer within Boeing's 4,780-plus delivery backlog.

Beverly Wyse, 737 vice president and general manager, affirms that “Lion Air is the 737-9 [MAX] launch customer and will be the first to fly the MAX in Asia.”

Kirana says the 737-9, configured with an all-economy layout, will have capacity for 225. “So that is good for low costs, but the other good thing is that it has good range and will be capable of six-to-seven-hour nonstop flights with a full payload. So we can do a lot with this aircraft, whether we fly it as a low-cost carrier or if we fly it on medium range with slightly lower capacity. We are happy with what [Boeing] is promising. The range is better than the -900ER and so is the fuel burn. The extra range will open up new routes.”

Lion expects to receive 30 Boeing aircraft in 2014, and 32 in 2015, and together with some initial Airbus A320-family aircraft ordered as part of an equally large contract deal last March, should see overall fleet deliveries of 36 aircraft per year in the next two years. Kirana adds that, given Boeing's existing commitments, he does not hold out much hope of securing earlier deliveries until 2016 or beyond. Delivery of the first A320 is expected in July 2014. The aircraft will be the first of 234 A320-family aircraft ordered in March, the deal for which comprises 109 reengined A320neos, 65 A321neos and 60 current-production A320s. The dual purchase of Airbus and Boeing fleets is driven by Lion's ambitious growth strategy, Kirana explains. “We have big plans for our development and I do not think one original equipment manufacturer can fulfill that. That is why we bought Airbus after we bought Boeing. We need more aircraft.”

Kirana's continuing success is attributable to the varied operating concepts the Lion Group has pioneered across an underserved region, says Dinesh Keskar, Boeing vice president for the Asia-Pacific and India. “[Kirana] has offered different models, which further stimulated growth in the industry. That is down to his vision and to him taking these bold steps.”

Lion Air, which became the launch customer for the 737-900ER in 2005, currently operates 67 737-900ERs and 19 737-800s. The group's other 737s are allocated to its full-service carrier in Indonesia, Batik Air, which flies four -900ERs, and to its overseas affiliates: Malindo Air in Malaysia with six -900ERs and Thai Lion Air, a new carrier based in Bangkok, with two -900ERs.

The Thai airline is flying route-proving services as it enters the final phase of evaluation for approval for its air operator certificate (AOC) from Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation. Lion expects the new carrier, which has already obtained its AOC, to begin services in December. For future expansion, Lion is weighing the benefits of additional affiliates in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia, which Kirana describes as “a priority.”

A further bold step, and one that Kirana is perhaps approaching with more caution than most, is the potential acquisition of a fleet of Bombardier CSeries CS300 airliners. Lion states that the Canadian-made jet might be able to open up untapped “long-thin” routes in the Indonesian carrier's rapidly expanding Asian-Pacific network, and Kirana confirms that the airline group is interested in “up to 50 minimum” of the larger CS300 version. “I believe this aircraft will be good and, in terms of cost per seat, will be almost the same as the A320neo. So it will be good to fly on long- or mid-range routes with thin markets and therefore be good to open up new markets.”

However, the timing of a CS300 deal remains uncertain. Having revealed in September that Lion was considering a “double-digit” order of the aircraft by year-end, Kirana now says the decision will ultimately depend on performance figures from test flights. The initial CS100 is undergoing initial testing in Montreal, and flight tests of the CS300—which, like the first variant, is powered by Pratt & Whitney PW1500G geared turbofans—are expected to begin early in 2014. First deliveries to Lion could occur in 2016, he asserts.

“The rate of progress is not as fast as I was expecting to get a deal signed,” Kirani says, adding, “I'm quite pessimistic it can be by the end of this year, or even the first quarter of next. But in terms of financing, we have to see once they are ready and then [we can talk].” He notes that Lion's requirement for the type is not “urgent,” and cautions that Bombardier's focus is on ensuring performance before hammering out deals. “It is a new type of aircraft and they need to make sure everything is good,” Kirani explains.

Higher up the capacity scale, the group also has five 787-8s on order and options on a further five. The first five, at least two of which could be operated by Thai Lion, are part of the early-build batch of 787s, which were not configured with the optimized structure of the current production standard. “We are trying to see what we will do with them,” says Kirani.

Describing the batch as “teenager” aircraft, he notes Lion “got a pretty good deal. But we don't need the aircraft to fly farther than we need, although for sure they are a little heavier.” Kirani adds that Thai Lion would like to use some on longer-haul operations and “we are working on that.” The aircraft are believed to be Rolls-Royce Trent 1000-powered Line Nos. 10, 13, 15, 16 and 18.