Getting bigger all the time

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As press releases go, Thursday’s announcement that El Al Israel Airlines has completed an order for two additional 737-900ERs is pretty routine.

The order adds to the six airplanes that the Israeli airline ordered in March 2011. It has not taken delivery of any of the -900ERs, which are the highest capacity model in the 737 Next Generation series (see artist rendering).

El Al’s choice underscores a trend toward larger capacity airframes in single-aisle jets across the industry. The -900ER is Boeing’s replacement for the discontinued 757 and it has seen a faster ordering pace than the NG-series smallest jet, the 737-700, for several years.

That trend reverses the ordering pace that Boeing experienced when it introduced the NG series. The introduction came with a launch order from Southwest Airiness in November 1993 for the 126-seat -700. Southwest too delivery of the first airplane in December 1997, so the -700 is now in its 14th year of service.

A lot has changed in the intervening years. Boeing’s initial NG order book was dominated by the -700, in no small measure because Southwest is such a stellar customer. But since the mid-2000s the 162-seat -800 has been Boeing’s star. In fact, it has accumulated more orders than all the 737-100s through -600s combined.

Even cautious Southwest, which tends toward a smaller cabin rather than a larger one to assure high load factors, has moved its NG orders away from an all-737-700 preference to the larger -800s.

When it launched Boeing’s MAX program, which re-engines the NG series, with an order for 150 airplanes. it ignored the 737-7. It wanted all the new airplanes to be 737-8s, MAX’s equivalent of the 737-800.

Meanwhile, the 180-seat 737-900ER and its MAX equivalent, the 737-9,  have become Boeing’s rising stars in the narrowbody world. (All seating cited is for a nominal 2-class layout). The El Al order pushes the 737-900ER past the 500 order mark.

No one is suggesting that the 737-9 will eventually eclipse the -8 like the 737-800 did the 737-700. But it is clear that airlines are moving away from smaller jets.

In fact, Boeing has quietly euthanized its smallest single-aisle, the 110-seat 737-600. After not selling any since 2005, it has opted not to continue the line in the MAX program.

The trend toward bigger airplanes is stamped pretty clearly in Boeing’s strategy for the MAX. Southwest’s order means the 737-8 will be the first to roll out of its Renton factory, in 2017. Next out the door – in 2018 -- will be the 737-9, followed by the 737-7 a year later.

So it’s a case of the first shall be last in this transition of the 737 series. The -700 was the first NG but the -7 will be the last MAX.

Firm orders for the MAX now stand at 649 aircraft with commitments raising the total beyond 1,000, according to the manufacturer.

Boeing is not yet breaking down its customers’ model preferences. But looking over the orders posted so far we cannot find any for the 737-7 but a lot of interest in the -9.

In fact, by AirInsight’s count, the ratio for 737-8s compared to 737-9s stands at 60:40.

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