Jan 3, 2013

Boeing and the really, truly big news about the 737 MAX

There is a public interest component in the latest order for  60 Boeing 737 MAX airliners, to aircraft leasing company ACG  that is overlooked in the usual corporate ego stroking lang

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

There is a public interest component in the latest order for  60 Boeing 737 MAX airliners, to aircraft leasing company ACG  that is overlooked in the usual corporate ego stroking language of aircraft sales win press releases by any manufacturer.

And that is the contribution the new technology engines which are slung under the wing of workhorse sing aisle twin engine jet will make to reducing fossil sourced carbon emissions.

Nothing else really matters. Air transport, like any other fossil fuel consuming activity, has to clean up its act.  As is the case with the sooner to fly and larger selling Airbus program, the A320 NEO or new engine option versions of its single aisle people mover, its all about better engines using much less fuel to perform the same amount of work.

The 737 MAXs, like the Boeing rendering of one below in Virgin Australia livery,  and the A320 NEOs, will be every bit as intolerably uncomfortable in economy class as airline bean counters can render them within the safety rules relating to the maximum permissible passenger loads in each family of misery tubes.

Whether it’s a 737 today, or a 737 MAX after late 2017, the in flight experience will be just as bad, if we ignore alleged improvements to overhead bins or the continued overuse of a ghastly purple hued lights to—quoting the spin doctors—create a sense of spaciousness.

Such cosmetic fluffery isn’t going to stop bone pain when  your knees are jammed hard against the seat  in front of you, which will be so close it will be hard to focus on your iPad, should you by then be allowed to try and use one for the entire flight.

This is what the Boeing statement said:

Boeing [NYSE: BA] announced today an order by Aviation Capital Group (ACG) for 60 737 MAX airplanes. ACG’s order, consisting of 50 737 MAX 8s and 10 737 MAX 9s, was finalized in December 2012. The 737 MAX has now accumulated more than 1,000 orders to date.

“This order is a major step in building our broad portfolio of modern, fuel-efficient airplanes,” said Denis Kalscheur, chief executive officer of ACG. “The 737 MAX enables us to offer our customers airplanes that provide the fuel efficiency, reliability and passenger comforts needed to grow in tomorrow’s marketplace.”

The order, worth $6 billion at current list prices, further illustrates the strong demand for the 737 MAX in the airplane leasing industry.

“We are proud of the confidence that ACG has placed in the 737 MAX,” said John Wojick, senior vice president of Global Sales, Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “The 737 MAX will deliver to ACG’s customers unsurpassed efficiency in the single-aisle market as well as improved environmental performance.”

(The statement dribbles off into more cliches. You get the message, no doubt.)

Seriously, the statement should have said, Boeing sells another $6 billion worth of jets to help save the planet, because, cynicism switched off, this is completely true and exceptionally worthy.

It’s pointless making press releases for airliner geeks when the real message should be to citizen travellers, that good things are being done to:

1. Make Boeing, and  its French American engine makers CFM rich, and

2.Reduce human contributions to climate change before they ‘reduce’ us.

The current road map, or flight path, to this starts with reduced emissions from fossil carbon releasing kerosene, with new engine technology, as in the 737 MAX.

The next step or waypoint comes from the fuelling of the same engines with kerosene refined from biological sources.  These processes get their carbon out of the natural carbon cycles, uses it as part of the process for releasing energy, in which it is emitted it back into the cycle it came from, to be used over and over and over, with no net rise to the carbon overburden in the atmosphere caused by the open ended release of fossil fuel emissions.

There is a huge cost bonus in using bio fuels too, even though in small batches they currently cost around 50-60% more than fossil carbon releasing fuel. That is the savings that comes from in situ production. Oil derived aviation fuel is refined in one location and often tankered enormous distances, by fossil fuel burning ships or trucks, while bio fuel projects which have already perfected aviation grade kerosene substitutes from a range of biological materials,  can be made close to  where the jets will refuel.

These reduced distribution costs, and reduced distribution emissions, add to the benefits of bio-fuel production.

After which comes algal grown fuels, and the totally different competing and perhaps complimentary technologies of super batteries that store energy captured from renewables such as solar, tidal and wind power  as proposed in the Boeing SUGAR Volt project.

It is in this context that Boeing’s success with the 737 MAX ought to be sold, not to airplane aficionados but to the general population as a small yet vital element in the energy technology revolution of the twenty first century.

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13 thoughts on “Boeing and the really, truly big news about the 737 MAX

  1. mook schanker

    I thought ‘new technology’ was all about reduced fuel consumption per km than anything about emissions, ah well.

    I question if bio-fuel production links with a reduction in emissions and unfortunately nowhere in this article does it articulate if this is the case. Will bio-fuel production actually have reduced emissions? Does bio-fuel distribution savings offset bio-fuel energy/emissions consumed in production? What does the whole life cycle cost look like? Sorry, but a few feel good statements doesn’t cut it I’m afraid….

  2. Ben Sandilands

    You thought wrong. Check out the Boeing statement. Try not to be an infantile asshole too.

  3. crystal perido

    This one?…”The statement dribbles off into more cliches. You get the message, no doubt.”

    there is no link between bio-fuels and the a revamped plane

  4. Ben Sandilands

    This might seem a bit daring Crystal, but the Boeing statement in so far as it is quoted can be put into a search and found in full in about two seconds.

    Similarly you can visit and see for yourself.

    The point is that Boeing has a very good story to tell about the quest for cleaner fuels and more efficient engines and it does not only link the two elements, but is arguably giving the industry leadership on such issues, which is why I also linked to the SUGAR Volt project.

    I’d like to see the MSN move beyond the dribble that is pushed out by lazy publicists and spokespersons and deal instead with the broader issues as well as do the right thing by their own investment in carbon neutral fuels and improved efficiency.

    Neither the MAX nor NEO is going to do anything to reconcile a travelling population that is growing larger in the 21st century with airline seats that are for most price points getting smaller. But the need to act on new energy technology is influencing everything that aircraft designers and manufacturers do, clearly from a profitability interest, but also because of the pressure placed on all energy users to meet the new challenges.

    That is the bigger story into which the MAX and other cleaner and leaner applications of new engine technologies fit.

  5. NiallOC

    For you consistently good, accurate and quick reporting I can forgive your constant railing against beancounters (the guys who are good at matching supply and demand) and small seats (though: if the travelling public agreed with you how come premium economy isn’t the bulk of a plane and full to bursting? Most people want cheap seats, not big seats or even safer seats).
    I also happen to think you’re wrong on fuels being expensive to transport, but again I’ll let that pass.
    What I can’t forgive any self-respecting journalist for is calling his readership rude names. You’ve lost at least 2 readers today.

  6. patrick kilby

    One thing I do not like about the blogosphere is the ease in which personal abuse and name calling is seen as part of good debate. It is sad when the moderator not only does not censor such language (other good blog moderators do), but engages in it themselves.

  7. mook schanker

    Ben, maybe you can try and be a professional reporter perhaps and have a read of Crikey’s moderation guidelines? Or even better, constructively respond to what I thought were reasonable observations…

    If you don’t like peoples ‘thoughts’ perhaps give up your day job?

  8. Ben Sandilands


    One of the ground rules about attacking people on-line should be to avoid making assumptions.

    My day job has nothing to do with Crikey. I do not work for Crikey. Producing Plane Talking costs me money because I recover none of the sometimes considerable expenses it incurs.

    Crikey invests substantial resources into providing on-line independent reporting, analysis and commentary at some risk to its owners. Their commitment to this has my admiration, and I’m happy to draw what is a considerable and growing readership at Plane Talking to their site out of respect to what they are doing for journalism in very difficult times.

    Your earlier comment was uniformed as to the work Boeing has done in relation to both fuel efficiency and emissions reduction, which has been the subject of many detailed posts here and on the part of other aviation and science or environment writers in other places.

    I don’t think, in an online world, that you have any reasonable excuse for attacking me for making ‘feel good statements that don’t cut it for you’, when you can better inform yourself by doing some reading on these matters first.

    If my responses to your insulting questions were upsetting, that’s tough.

  9. mook schanker

    Ben, your ‘I know better than you’ response is pandering to the ‘know it all’ common denominator that usually resides in MSM writers, say cue The Oz.

    I believe I am quite informed on issues in this space, I just have a different view on what is the Boeing’s primary motivating factor – profit margin over emissions. I am also sceptical on bio-fuels capacity to actually enable emission reduction due to the offset emissions to produce bio-fuel in the first place. Also add into account such environmental lifecycle cost factors such as logistics, impact on our food bowl or forest bowl, calorific value of bio-fuel and finally emissions output.

    But hey, what would I know, I’m just uninformed. What was it about ground rules and making assumptions about people?

    If you cannot take criticism, or in your perception ‘insulting questions’, I suggest just turning off the bloody comments portal….

  10. Ben Sandilands


    In previous reports here and elsewhere some of those issues have been very hot topics.

    One of the assumptions often made in discussions like this is that the reporter is the same as the company, in this case Boeing, which I’m sure any Boeing contact you have will hasten to say isn’t the case with me, as have been a long term critic as a journalist of their communications when it came to the 787 project.

    I think it is important to put the Boeing view, but also important for people to critique all the elements. I happen to agree with most of what Boeing has said in bio fuels, which incidentally is in strong agreement with your concerns about impacts on agriculture, something Billy Glover never stands up without mentioning.

    I also think their road map, which is not much different to that of Airbus’s, is correct in that bio fuels are going to be an interim adjunct to the longer term goal of carbon neutral fuels.

    In the last few years a new meme on bio fuels has been that their major benefit may be to inhibit the upward trend price in fossil carbon releasing fuels because of the cross over point at which larger scale bio fuel availability will cause a shift in demand, as will, in theory various carbon taxes or ETS proposals. (Colour me sceptical on that, but attentive.)

    The most negative impact on agriculture so far has been from methanol production as a gasoline blend, which is useless for airliners, and arguably very suss for autos as well.

    The trend in bio-kero projects has been more to marginal plant sources and various industrial wastes, some of which will of course include byproducts of fossil carbon releasing fuels early in the chain.

    It may be if both Boeing (SUGAR Volt) and EADS are right about battery storage technology, our current fixation with liquid fuels may become much diluted (!) by the conversion of renewable energy into battery stored power for aviation.

    While it can be easy for any of us to be dismissive about this, we can be wrong too. Few people outside of the US took the push for energy independence from imported non US oil seriously yet it has achieved that aim, albeit not without some negative effects in places.

    Whatever the future yields by way of changes into energy technology, my view is that there is going to be a revolution, perhaps on many fronts, and that the next generations will not only end the dependance on fossil carbon releasing energy sources, but address the need to go after the excess build up of carbon in the atmosphere and seas.

    I have no problem with people querying what Boeing or Airbus might say, but I did have a problem with being attacked for making feel good statements that don’t cut it to you personally when I have spent a great deal of time and money ensuring that I learn as much as possible first hand from those involved in such programs and hoping that those of us who follow air transport will look more broadly at energy technology issues.

  11. Tamas Calderwood

    Ben – I agree this is a good story for Boeing because more efficient planes mean cheaper flying.

    However, reducing fuel consumption in 737s isn’t going to save the planet – not when India and China’s emissions are skyrocketing. And besides, there still hasn’t been any global warming for 15 years despite these rocketing emissions.

  12. Ben Sandilands


    If the 21st century energy technology revolution succeeds, it will produce non-fossil carbon releasing fuels that are capable of meeting demand at a lower cost, and the emissions crisis you identify arising in China and India and elsewhere will either diminish or vanish.

    Much of the risk capital behind such efforts can be traced to enterprises which are big in fossil carbon releasing energy today.

    I think they have seen the future, and intend to own it. As usual, I could also be wrong, but I hope not.

  13. Tamas Calderwood

    Ben – perhaps, although I also suspect gas will play an enormous role in our future energy mix. This is good from a CO2 perspective (if that really matters) because it releases half as much as coal per unit of energy. The best thing about gas is that it is everywhere – Australia, China, North and Sth America, Europe, Africa… and there is lots of it.

    Nonetheless, I welcome any new energy source so long as it’s not subsidised by government. The wind boondoggle shows what happens when the cost/benefit analysis is discarded.

    If bio-fuels are cost effective, then bring ’em on.

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