Boeing's Most Important New Plane in Years Just Took Flight

Jan 29, 2016

Boeing's newest passenger jet flew for the first time Friday, taking off into drizzly weather appropriate for an airplane that the Chicago-based firm is counting on to make it rain.

The airliner, called the 737 MAX, may not be as flashy as Boeing's 787 Dreamliner or European rival Airbus' massive A380. But it is hugely important for Boeing nonetheless.

The 737 is to Boeing as the F-150 pickup truck is to Ford: A perennial high-seller that helps finance other projects. And it's even more vital as orders for the company's older, bigger airplanes, like the iconic 747, dwindle. Airlines are increasingly demanding more efficient airplanes, as well as smaller models that are easier to fill with paying passengers. (In the aviation business, nothing is worse than flying an empty seat.)

So the 737 MAX is Boeing's answer to this changing climate. Essentially, the company took the features its customers already love about the 737 and doubled down on them. New engines, a larger wingspan and characteristic new winglets make the MAX almost 15% more efficient, Boeing says. A higher-capacity version is available to airlines that want it, and the company boasts that the Max will be just as reliable as previous 737s, considered so trustworthy that airlines like Southwest have built entire businesses around them.

So far, Boeing's strategy is paying off. It already had more than 3,000 orders for the 737 MAX even before the first flight. It's also a win for the company in another way: The project is ahead of schedule, a change of pace from the delay-plagued Dreamliner. Meanwhile, investors are cheering the inaugural flight with a different kind of takeoff: Boeing's stock is up about 1.3% Friday. That's much-needed good news after the company said it will deliver fewer airplanes than expected this year, sending its stock into a nosedive earlier this week.

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