First 737 MAX enters service with Malaysia’s Malindo; Fiji Airways to launch first MAX route to Australia

Malaysia’s Malindo Air has placed into service Boeing’s first 737 MAX, a new re-engined narrowbody aircraft family that also has been ordered by Virgin Australia and Fiji Airways and is under evaluation by Qantas.

Malindo, which has been serving the Australia market since 2015, took delivery of the world’s first 737 MAX 8 on 16-May-2017 and placed the aircraft into service on 22-May-2017. Malindo plans to take a second 737 MAX 8 by the end of May-2017 followed by two more in Jun-2017. The initial fleet of four 737 MAX 8 aircraft will primarily be used on medium haul routes to South Asia.

Australia is not a likely market for Malindo’s 737 MAX 8 because Malindo has opted for an all economy configuration, making the aircraft better suited for routes with limited or no premium demand. Malindo currently operates 10 weekly flights from Kuala Lumpur to Perth and one daily flight from Kuala Lumpur to Brisbane via Bali using two class 162-seat 737-800s with 150 economy and 12 business seats. Malindo will likely continue to operate two-class 737NGs to Australia as they enable the airline to offer a premium product as well as a roomier product in economy.

Australia is not a likely market for Malindo’s 737 MAX 8 because Malindo has opted for an all economy configuration

Malindo’s fleet of 29 737-800/900ERs are all operated in two class configuration and feature economy seats with 32in pitch and seatback inflight entertainment (IFE) monitors. The 737 MAX 8 has 31in pitch and for now does not have any IFE (although Malindo is intending to later retrofit the aircraft later with IFE).

Malindo plans to retain the current two seat configuration on its 737-800s and 737-900ERs and also has opted for a two-class configuration on its future A330-300s, which will be delivered later this year. Malindo is taking three A330s in 4Q2017 and expect to use a portion of its new widebody fleet to launch services to Melbourne or Sydney.

The 737 MAX 8 is the first of at least four variants in the new 737 MAX family of aircraft. Malindo beat Norwegian by a few weeks to gain the distinction of operating the first 737 MAX flight.

Malindo’s first commercial flight on the 737 MAX was operated from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on 22-May-2017. Norwegian, which is also taking its first batch of 737 MAX 8 aircraft in May-2017, plans to place the aircraft into service on 15-Jun-2017 on a new route from Stewart Airport in New York to Edinburgh. Using Norwegian’s initial batch of 737 MAX 8s Norwegian plans to launch another 11 new trans-Atlantic routes, which will be launched by early Jul-2017 and connect three secondary airports in the northeast US with six destinations in Ireland, the UK and Norway.

Malindo has so far scheduled 737 MAX 8 flights on four of its existing routes – Kuala Lumpur to Dhaka, Lahore, Langkawi and Singapore. However, the Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi and Singapore flights will be temporary. These two short routes of less than an hour are being used essentially initial training and operational purposes. From Jul-2017, Malindo plans to use the MAX 8 entirely (or almost entirely) on medium haul routes to South Asia and, to a lesser extent, to China.

In addition to Dhaka in Bangladesh and Lahore in Pakistan, MAX 8 flights to Kathmandu are likely with the initial four aircraft. Malindo is also looking at using the type to serve secondary cities in India and China. Australia passengers will have the opportunity to fly the MAX 8 when connecting in Kuala Lumpur to South Asia and China although most of the main one stop markets Malindo serves from Australia, particularly for corporates, will continue to be served with two class 737NGs.

The 737 MAX 8 will likely make its debut in Australia in 2018, when Fiji Airways plans to take delivery of the first of five aircraft. Fiji Airways plans to use the MAX 8 to replace 737-800s on existing routes. Fiji uses the 737-800s to all three of its destinations in Australia (Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney) and all three of its destinations in New Zealand (Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington) although some of its Auckland and Sydney flights are served with A330s.

Virgin Australia is slated to take delivery of the first of 40 737 MAX aircraft in late 2019. It recently deferred the first delivery from 2018 and as a result will likely not be the first 737 MAX operator in Australia – although will be the first local Australian airline to operate the type.

The 737 MAX 8 will likely make its debut in Australia in 2018, when Fiji Airways plans to take delivery of the first of five aircraft.

The only other airline in the South Pacific region to order the 737 MAX is Air Niugini, which plans to take the first of four aircraft in 2020. Air Niugini now uses the 737-800 on the Port Moresby-Sydney route but uses other aircraft types to its three other Australia destinations (Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville).

Qantas also has been evaluating the 737 MAX 8 as a potential replacement for its 737-800 fleet. Qantas currently operates 67 737-800s while Virgin Australia operates 77 737-800s with three more on order, according to the CAPA Fleet Database. Tigerair Australia also operates one 737-800 and is planning to take over several 737-800s from parent Virgin Australia over the next two years as it phases out its A320 fleet. At least for now Tigerair Australia has now plans to operate the new generation 737 MAX.

While Malindo is not likely to operate its initial batch of 737 MAX 8 to Australia, it could use on its Kuala Lumpur-Perth and Kuala Lumpur-Bali-Brisbane routes future 737 MAX 8s or 737 MAX 9s that are delivered in its normal two-class configuration. Malindo is not expecting to take delivery of any two class 737 MAX aircraft in 2017 but will likely take some in 2018.

Malindo’s parent the Lion Group has 201 737 MAX aircraft on order. Lion Group is planning to take a not yet specified mix of 737 MAX 8s and 737 MAX 9s and could also potentially order the larger 737 MAX 10, which Boeing has been offering since Dec-2016 but is not yet formally launched.

The Lion Group has not yet decided on a breakdown of its 2018 deliveries among the airlines in its portfolio. For 2017, the group has allocated four 737 MAX 8 deliveries to Malindo followed by four 737 MAX 8 deliveries to Indonesia based Lion Air. Thai Lion is also expected to take 737 MAX aircraft – potentially in 2018 – while Indonesia based Batik Air has been allocated the initial batch of A320neos ordered by the group. Batik Air and Malindo, which will be rebranded Batik Malaysia in 2H2017, are full service airlines while Lion Air and Thai Lion are LCCs.

Other Southeast Asian airlines with 737 MAX aircraft on order include Garuda Indonesia, Malaysia Airlines, Myanmar National Airlines and Nok Air. Garuda and Malaysia Airlines are likely to use 737 MAX to Australia as they both now already operate the 737-800 on some of their Australia routes. The improved range of the 737 MAX provides an opportunity for Southeast Asian airlines to fly deeper into Australia with narrowbody aircraft – and for Virgin Australia to resume expansion in Southeast Asia, a market it has been shrinking in recent years.

737 MAX orders from airlines/airline groups in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia regions

Rank

Airline/Group Number of orders

1.

Lion Group 201

2.

Garuda Indonesia 80

3.

Virgin Australia 40

4.

Malaysia Airlines

25

5. Nok Air

8

6. Fiji Airways

5

7. Air Niguini

4

8. Myanmar National

4

 

Source: CAPA Fleet Database