FARNBOROUGH, England — As a top Delta executive confirmed an expected order at the Farnborough Air Show for 100 Boeing 737 MAX 10s — with options to purchase another 30 on similar terms — he said it was a “delicate moment” that marked a positive turn in a relationship that had gone awry.
Mahendra Nair, senior vice president at Delta responsible for its aircraft fleet, also declared the commonality of the MAX 10 cockpit systems with other 737s “the biggest factor that drove the decision” to buy.
With that, Nair offered full support for Boeing’s position that Congress should act to ensure that the jet maker can get this largest MAX model certified without upgrading its systems.
The “delicate moment” was the return of this major U.S. airline to Boeing after a substantial break.
Although Delta has bought Boeing planes for 50 years, “for the last 11 years there was a little bit of a drought,” said Nair.
Since 2011, Delta has bought just 30 Boeing planes, while buying hundreds of Airbus jets.
The low point came in 2017 when Boeing made an ill-advised and failed attempt to have the government impose tariffs to stop Airbus from selling its A220 jet to Delta. From then until Monday, Delta hadn’t bought a single Boeing plane.
But at the Farnborough signing ceremony, Nair said the MAX purchase marks “an inflection point in the relationship with Boeing.”
Ever since the discussions on the order began in 2020, he said, “it’s a new relationship with Boeing.”
By his side, Boeing sales chief Ihssane Mounir said Delta and Boeing had a continued partnership even through those lean sales years as the jet maker serviced Delta’s fleet of older 737s, 757s and 767s.
“When you look at the relationship holistically, there was a lot going on, on the positive (side),” said Mounir.
Delta doesn’t want MAX cockpit changed
Nair said Boeing was very transparent with Delta about the significant changes it had to make to this version of the MAX — including adding a third measure of a key data point called the angle of attack because the European air safety regulator was not content with just two.
Delta was concerned that those changes might make the cockpit different from the other 737s, so that pilots would have to train separately for it.
It isn’t. Inside the MAX 10 parked on the side of the Farnborough airfield Monday morning, Todd Abraham, the test pilot who ferried the jet from Seattle, said the MAX 10 handles exactly like the other MAXs and that there are no instrument panel differences.
The extra angle of attack measure and other small tweaks to the systems “have zero impact on normal operations,” Abraham said.
Delta’s chief pilot came to Seattle to check out the plane.
“We feel pretty comfortable about the ability for our pilots to get trained on the 737-10 and it offering commonality,” Nair said.
He then directly addressed the safety and political question that has produced uncertainty about the MAX 10.
It is now highly unlikely that the MAX 10 will be certified by year end. This is a major issue, because a Federal Aviation Administration reform law passed in 2020 requires that any plane certified from next year forward must have the most modern system for alerting the crew when something goes wrong.
The 737 doesn’t meet that standard. And Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun raised the possibility this month that the MAX 10 might have to be canceled if Congress doesn’t act to extend the certification deadline.
Nair waded right into the politics, saying it’s essential to Delta that the MAX 10 have a common cockpit with both the other MAXs and the older 737s.
“I would even urge everybody, Congress, the FAA, to consider the fact that that commonality is the bellwether for us,” he said. “That commonality is what will help us incorporate this airplane into our fleets.”
Boeing argues that this commonality makes the plane safer. If it differed from the other MAXs, a pilot might move from, say, a MAX 7 to a MAX 10 and not be fully aware of the system change.
With the MAX 10 configured as it is, Abraham said there is no difference whatever to a pilot if moving from the smallest model MAX 7 to the largest model MAX 10.
Cockpit changes made before
Delta’s support of Boeing’s position underlines that a decision on whether to make any such change to an airplane is usually driven by the airline customers. If they want the change and will pay for it, Boeing will do it.
Back in the late 1990s, after the merger with McDonnell Douglas, key cargo customer FedEx asked Boeing to upgrade the cockpit systems in its 70 DC-10 freighters.
The new cockpit allowed FedEx to reduce the DC-10 crew from three pilots to two, saving a great deal of money in pilot pay, and also made it common to the larger MD-11 so that pilots could easily transition from one jet to the other.
Boeing not only developed the retrofit cockpit for FedEx, it offered the retrofit upgrade to the operators of all 413 DC-10s then flying around the world.
Much closer to the MAX case, when Boeing designed the 737-based P-8 anti-submarine hunter for the U.S. Navy, though the pilot alerts remained the same for the basic airplane systems, Boeing added extra crew alert messages on the main pilot display for some of the new military mission systems on the plane.
On Sunday, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Stan Deal said an upgrade of the MAX cockpit is “technically possible.”
However, the change would cost the airlines money. Neither Delta nor any of the other MAX 10 customers want that.
The MAX 10 fits in Delta’s fleet
Delta has 236 previous model 737 NGs in its fleet. The much larger MAX 10s will replace some of the older ones as those retire.
When all the MAXs are delivered, that will expand the total Delta 737 fleet to more than 300 airplanes with a common cockpit.
The airline will take delivery of the MAX 10s from 2025 to 2029 and configure them with 182 seats, 29% of which will be higher-fare premium seats.
Based on market pricing data from aircraft valuation firm Avitas, the firm order for 100 MAXs is worth approximately $6.7 billion after standard industry discounts.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized changes to the cockpit display Boeing made on the 737-based P-8. New crew alerts were added for the jet’s military systems. But the 737 crew alerting system otherwise remained the same.