New Aircraft Preview: BBJ Max

Jan 12, 2015 - 9:00 PM

Upgrades to popular BBJs deliver more range, better performance.

Boeing is introducing a variant of its single-aisle 737 airline workhorse that it calls “Max.” The “new” airplane is really a modernization of the manufacturer’s nearly 50-year-old twinjet, which has been a staple of low-fare airlines for decades, in no small part due to its rugged construction and comparatively easy maintenance. The 737 also served as the platform for Boeing’s wildly successful line of single-aisle business jets known as BBJs. More than 150 of those are in service.

The BBJ spawned in 1996 from a partnership between Boeing and General Electric, maker of the CFM-56 series of engines for newer-generation 737s. The 737 is the most successful and ubiquitous jetliner ever produced. Customers would buy the BBJ “green,” or unfinished, for around $36 million (1996 dollars) and then spend whatever they wanted on custom paint and interiors. And spend they did, with the average finished price heading well north of $50 million. Before the BBJ, the top-end market for corporate jets ran in the $40 million range.

The original BBJ incorporated components of two 737 models—the airframe from the 737-700 series and the wing, landing gear and center fuselage section from the larger 737-800 series. Anywhere from three to 10 auxiliary fuel tanks can be installed in the belly of the airplane, ­giving it a range of 6,196 nautical miles with eight passengers, equating to 14 hours in the air. 

A stretched version called the BBJ2 boasts 25 percent more cabin capacity, but at the price of slightly reduced range. The BBJ2 came about in part because the BBJ doesn’t have much room for baggage in the cargo hold with all those extra fuel tanks in the belly. Boeing fielded an even larger version, the BBJ3, in 2005, based on the 737-900ER, which was sold to the airlines and seated 189 passengers in coach.

Driven by the airlines’ desire to cut costs and increase fuel efficiency, Boeing announced the Max program in 2011 after contemplating and rejecting a clean-sheet design replacement for the 737. Even before Boeing could finish the details of the Max’s design, the airlines, eager to boost earnings, were banging down the door. Although Boeing won’t deliver the Max until late 2017, it already has more than 2,200 orders for the airplane—an amazing feat.

In 2013, Boeing largely completed the aircraft’s design, and the performance numbers did not disappoint: it will be 14 percent more fuel efficient than current production 737s, thanks to new-design winglets and new CFM International Leap-1B engines that are mounted farther forward and higher on the wing and connected by new and more aerodynamic engine-mounting pylons. The Max also gets a more aerodynamic vertical stabilizer.

To provide adequate ground clearance for the larger engines, the landing gear will be lengthened so the airplane will stand a little taller on the tarmac. The Max will employ limited fly-by-wire controls, mainly to the wing spoilers, those wing-top surfaces that pop up to assist in turning the aircraft and decelerating it. Other planned whiz-bang includes the addition of four big 15.1-inch Rockwell Collins flight displays in the cockpit—the same ones that are on the new, larger Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Maintenance on the Max will be easier, as fault data, once collected by instruments in the forward equipment bay, will now be available for technicians and pilots on the cockpit display screens. The Max will also hold more maintenance data on its enhanced onboard network system and network file server—doubling the amount of maintenance information available during flight and transmitting it live to ground stations so that issues can be quickly resolved in flight or shortly after the airplane lands. This will further enhance the aircraft’s already high dispatch reliability—the current-generation 737 has a 99.7 percent dispatch rate.

The Boeing Business Jet variants of the Max are designated Max 8 and Max 9. They are based on the current BBJ2 and BBJ3, respectively, and have the same cabin sizes as their predecessors but significantly more range. The BBJ Max 8 will have a range of 6,325 nautical miles, a 14.6 percent improvement over the BBJ2. The BBJ Max 9 will offer a 6,255-nautical-mile range, a 16.2 percent jump from the BBJ3. 

Boeing already has received its first BBJ Max order (from an existing BBJ customer) and will deliver it to a completion center in 2018. While the BBJ single-aisle market has been soft of late, BBJ president Steve Taylor predicts that will change. “We expect a large demand for the BBJ Max, particularly for those BBJ owners who want to fly farther and more efficiently and still maintain the exceptional comfort of a BBJ,” he says.

Completion centers share Taylor’s optimism. One in particular, Germany’s Lufthansa Technik, already has designed a VIP pre-customized modular cabin concept for the BBJ Max 8 that it claims will shave 25 to 30 percent off the typical completion time and cost, with prices starting at $20 million. So with the BBJ Max you get an airplane that flies farther on less fuel with cabins that can be potentially installed faster and for less money. What billionaire bargain shopper wouldn’t like that?


Mark Huber is a private pilot with experience in more than 50 aircraft models.