DALLAS – Tuesday afternoon, Southwest Airlines flew home the first of nine Boeing 737-MAX 8 aircraft that they’ll put into service Oct. 1, making them the first North American airline to receive the new and improved plane.

As the largest operator of 737s worldwide, Southwest was instrumental in turning the plane into Boeing’s all-time bestseller. So fittingly, the low-cost carrier was the first airline to place an order in 2011 – 200 aircraft and the option to purchase 191 more.    

As the “launch customer,” Southwest had every intention of being the first to receive and the first to fly the new plane, but in January of this year, Norwegian Air Shuttle announced they’d be the first to fly the plane.

Not so fast, Norwegian.

In March, Malaysian carrier Malindo Air – a subsidiary of Lion Air – emerged and said they would be the first to operate the 737 MAX, and that claim held true. Malindo took delivery of their first 737 MAX 8 at the Seattle Delivery Center May 16, and the plane entered commercial service May 22.

Norwegian wasn’t too far behind when they took delivery of two 737 MAX 8s two months later, but not without a series of delays. And even though Norwegian was the first in the U.S. to operate the MAX, Southwest will still be the first American airline to fly the plane when they begin service this fall.

But being surpassed by the other carriers wasn’t the first problem Southwest faced with the MAX.

Back in April 2016 – more than four years into ongoing negotiations between the airline and their pilots’ union – Southwest decided to retire the 737-300 fleet by third quarter 2017 due to uncertainties around FAA pilot training requirements for the old -300 aircraft and the new MAX fleet. Just two months later, the airline announced they would delay a $1.9 billion order consisting of 67 MAX 8 aircraft by upwards of six years.

Even with postponed deliveries, and even though an airline – or two – came from behind and took the “first to fly” crown from Southwest, the first MAX painted in airline colors wore none other than the red, yellow and blue Southwest livery.

The Dallas-based carrier was also a huge player in the development and testing of the MAX.

Southwest and Boeing Partner to Conduct MAX Testing

Just last September, Southwest and Boeing worked together to conduct Service Ready Operational Validation (SROV) testing on the plane, which assesses the aircraft in a normal operational environment to gather data on how it will perform on typical airline routes.

The test flights, originating in Dallas and flying to Albuquerque, Chicago, and Phoenix among other cities, allowed Southwest to “receive” the new aircraft, if only for five days. The SROV testing also gave pilots a chance to test the new 15-inch flight displays as well as the shiny new CFM LEAP-1B engines – which themselves caused a few hiccups earlier this year.

On May 16 – the same day Malindo took delivery of their first MAX 8 – federal regulators cleared flights to resume after a brief suspension that began the previous week due to a potential issue with low-pressure turbine discs in the aircraft’s engines.

Range and Efficiency Let the MAX Go Further

Despite delays – Southwest had hoped to take delivery of their first MAX 8 in July – the airline is finally in possession of the plane that will help them to cut costs and allow them to serve new routes.

The MAX’s LEAP engines are what set it apart, allowing the aircraft to burn fuel 14 percent more efficiently and increasing its range by 300-500 miles. This could allow Southwest to start servicing a handful of South American cities and possibly even Hawaii pending manufacturer and airline Extended-range Twin-engine Operations (ETOPS) certification.

In June, the European Aviation Safety Agency and the FAA jointly granted 180-minute ETOPS approval to the Airbus A320neo LEAP-1A engine and the Boeing 737 MAX LEAP-1B engine. This means the MAX could safely operate up to three hours’ flying time from a suitable airport if one engine became inoperable. ETOPS certification allows for more direct routes, such as ones that involve significant time spent flying over water.

Even though the airline’s exact routes have yet to be announced, what we do know is that upon introduction, Southwest’s MAX aircraft will service the airline’s original “triangle route” – Dallas to Houston, Houston to San Antonio and San Antonio back to Dallas – routes the airline flew when they first launched service in 1971. Additionally, the MAX aircraft will fly one-way routes to and from more than 20 cities including Chicago, Orlando, Denver and Los Angeles among others.

Inside and Out: What to Expect on the 737 MAX

The interior of the 737 MAX won’t look different to anyone who has flown on a Southwest 737-800, as the “Heart Cabin” – originally designed for the MAX – ended up debuting on the -800 in May 2016. Passengers will also see modern-sculpted sidewalls and customizable LED lighting – part of the Boeing Sky Interior.

Those with a window seat will notice a few key updates – namely the new AT winglets with an aerofoil pointing downward, and the LEAP engines that sit higher up and slightly farther forward on the wing. And for those who prefer to get a little shuteye while flying: the MAX is quiet. In fact, the 737 MAX was designed to be 40 percent quieter than today’s Next-Generation 737.

Community noise testing took place last August in Glasgow, Montana where Boeing engineers and technicians listened to every decibel of sound to prove that the plane met federal and international noise regulations.

The Future of Southwest and MAX

After the initial nine MAX 8s enter service Oct. 1, a tenth plane will enter service a week later and Southwest will add another four to the fleet by the end of the year. The airline’s firm order of 200 aircraft includes 170 MAX 8s and 30 MAX 7s – a slightly smaller version expected to enter service in early 2019.

Other variants of the aircraft include the MAX 9, which will replace the 737-900 and has a longer fuselage than the MAX 8, and the even larger MAX 10, specifically designed to compete with the Airbus A321neo.

A high-density 737 MAX 200 will seat up to 200 passengers, making it 20 percent more cost efficient per seat than current 737s. The MAX 200 will become the market’s most efficient narrow-body aircraft upon service entry. Other proposed variants include a 737-8ERX, which would have a higher max takeoff weight and longer range, and two Boeing Business Jets – the BBJ MAX 8 and BBJ MAX 9.

The airline’s accelerated retirement of the 737-300 aircraft puts the last scheduled -300 flight on Friday, September 29, with official retirement slated for Saturday, September 30 – just one day before the launch of the nine MAX 8s.

With the 737 being the best-selling jet of all time, and Southwest being the aircraft’s largest operator, one thing is certain: Boeing and Southwest make one heck of a team. As the various MAX aircraft enter service with Southwest over the next several years, the airline is poised to have one of the most efficient, modern fleets in the world.

Additional delivery details will be made available later this week.