Alaska Airlines has been waiting for over seven years for the arrival of its 737 MAX. Despite the delay in delivery and the problematic history of the type, the airline’s CEO, Brad Tilden, remains confident that it’s an excellent plane for Alaska and for its customers.
Alaska’s MAX disappointment
When Alaska Airlines placed a 50 plane order from Boeing in 2012, it was a landmark for the airline. It represented the single biggest order in Alaska’s history, and saw it investing in Boeing’s latest, flagship narrowbody, the Boeing 737 MAX.
The first was due to arrive in the first half of 2019. The airline had even begun planning out the routes for its new 737 MAX. Operations were scheduled to begin in July last year, with the inaugural routes to be Seattle to Los Angeles, quickly followed by Seattle to San Jose. However, the planes never came.
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Two disastrous accidents and the subsequent grounding of the type left Alaska short on capacity. By August, when it became clear nothing would be changing soon, Alaska had to reactivate some of its previously retired Q400s to accommodate demand with the MAX in its fleet.
You would think that this experience would have left a bitter taste in the mouth of the airline’s management. However, as CEO Brad Tilden commented in an interview with Aviation Week today, his commitment to Boeing’s flagship narrowbody remains strong.
“I don’t feel any reservation at all about the Boeing Company’s commitment to safety. I know they’ve been doing flight tests this week. I heard from our VP of safety that those flight test went really, really well … so I think our team is satisfied with the safety of the MAX.”
Boeing led the charge on safety
During the interview, Tilden was forthright about his confidence in Boeing. While he noted that mistakes had been made, he was also keen to state his position on Boeing as a manufacturer. He said,
“What I would say is, I think even Boeing would say, that there were some mistakes made with the MAX. They were necessary to correct, and they are being corrected and Boeing is correcting those mistakes.
“The second thing that I think is really important to say is that sometimes the conversation takes on a funny tone, like the manufacturer doesn’t want the aircraft to be safe or something like that. And I can tell you, as a as a guy from Seattle and a long time pilot myself, this mode of transportation it is stunningly safe. It is amazingly safe.
“Boeing has led the charge on making air travel safe. I don’t want to take anything away from Airbus or GE or others, but I just think the commitment to safety in this industry is deep and I think that context has been lost in a lot of this conversation over the last year and a half.”
Specifically on the MAX, he thinks that, once it is certified to fly, it will be a safe airplane. Speaking about the tests, he said,
“I think they’ve put it through the wringer.”
They certainly have. While this weeks’ flight tests were relatively short, just 10 hours of flying time in total, this is a culmination of 15 months of scrutiny, fixes, tweaking and refinement. Putting it through the wringer is right; many say that there won’t be a safer plane in the sky once the FAA gives the MAX the seal of approval.
When will Alaska start flying the 737 MAX?
It was October 2012 when Alaska announced its largest-ever order, consisting of 50 Boeing 737s. The deal was worth around $5bn at list prices and included 37 737 MAX aircraft, split between the MAX 8 and MAX 9. The rest of the order was for 13 NGs.
None have yet arrived at the carrier, although Flight Global reported in 2018 that the MAX 8s had been swapped out for the larger MAX 9. As such, Alaska is eagerly awaiting delivery of the first of its order, as soon as the plane is cleared to fly. Tilden said,
“I don’t know when the MAXs will come. There are two at Boeing Field painted in our livery. We actually don’t have any MAXs. We didn’t have any in the fleet when the plane got grounded, but there are two at Boeing Field painted and ready to come in our livery, and we will be anxious to fly them as soon as we get the go-ahead.”
The latest indication from the FAA is that it could take until mid-September to certify the type. When it does, there’s going to be a swift flurry of deliveries to customers, as Boeing works to clear the several hundred completed planes it has parked around its sites. Alaska could well be flying the new aircraft before the end of the year.