Yet again, Southwest becomes the launch customer for a Boeing 737 sub-family. This move has significant consequences for the 737 MAX’s design, or at least for that part of the 737 which Southwest loves to keep it its way.
The flightdeck of the 737 is something that Southwest has influenced, right from the introduction of the 737 Classic- sub family (the -300/400/-500). Interestingly, the -300 first flew in 1984, almost two years after the first flight of the 767: the first airliner to be equipped with a glass cockpit. Yet,
Southwest wanted the 737-300 NON-EFIS version to satisfy the commonality with the 64 737-200s that it had operated. The overhead and pedestal of the 757 and 767 are aesthetically better, support automatic electric bus transfers, elevator trim without the noisy spinning trim wheel: just to name a few. And yet, none of these betterments were passed on to the 737s. The first 737 with electronic displays (EFIS) was MSN 23477, which first flew in 1986 (two years later), and served as VH-TAF with Australian Airlines.
Infact, Southwest had gone a bit too far in ensuring the commonality between the 737 Originals (-200) and the Classics (-300,-500) that it operated. Auto throttle was disabled, and the good then new and promising FMS that was in the cockpit could not support automated vertical navigation thanks to an “inoperative” VNAV button on the glare shield mode control panel. Thrust and speed could not be automatically maintained as well. And the overhead remained just as cluttered.
The story hardly changed when the Boeing 737 “Next Generation” was launched. Initially, Southwest was then interested in only one type: the Boeing 737-700, as an efficient and advanced replacement for the 737-300s. The efficiency surely did matter, but the flight deck advancements meant little to Southwest. For an aircraft that first flew in 1997, the 737NG’s cockpit hadn’t changed much, save the larger LCD screens that replaced all analogue instrumentation. Yet, Southwest needed the commonality, now between the old 737 Originals, the mid aged 737 Classics ,and the brand new “Next Generation” airplanes. And so, the autothrottles and associated primary functions, and the VNAV remained out of bounds for the flight deck crew. The 737NG, which first flew three years after the Boeing 777, still had the cluttered, and aesthetically unappealing overhead and throttle quadrant. The LCD screens draw analogue instruments like on the 737 Classics. So powerful was the influence of Southwest on Boeing.
Today, with 12 days left for the Christmas of 2011, the bells started ringing with Southwest being announced as the launch customer for the 737MAX. Southwest expects to take delivery in 2017, which could be 4-5 years from today. Unless Southwest decides otherwise, some of the newer 737-300s may still be around, and would Southwest want the 737MAX to be so identical to the -300s that the same crew members can switch seamlessly between all three generations of the 737?
Southwest got sensible in 2006 as far as automation is concerned, and started what it called the “The Automation Transformation”. This was a move away from the airlines’ too old “round dial” cockpit philosophy, to modern glass cockpits with full access to available automation. This move was necessary, as Southwest wanted to transition to Required Navigation Performance (RNP). And its only automation that guarantees desired economy. Quoting Chuck Magill, Vice President Flight Operations at Southwest, ” I remember hearing that Southwest Airlines would never use the autothrottle system. That change alone immediately netted us millions of dollars per month in fuel savings.” The airline embarked on training its near-6000 pilots on autothrottles, automation, vertical navigation, basic GPS approaches, and finally RNP.
To enable RNP on the old 737 “Classics”, in late 2008, Southwest Airlines awarded a $40M to General Electric to retrofit its entire fleet of 737-300s with twin 15.4-inch SDS-6000 glass displays.
With the glass cockpit 737 Classics, the modified 737-700s, and the ordered 737-800s, pilots will be on the same page as far as cockpit familiarity is concerned.
“The transition to PFD/ND displays in the flight deck better positioned us for the possibility to add the Boeing 737-800 to our fleet”, said Chuck on Southwest’s blog in the January of 2011. According to Andrew Carlisle, business development manager for GE Aviation (the former Smiths Aerospace), ” Southwest wanted simplicity. They wanted pilots to have similar symbology from the NGs to the Classics in order to reduce pilot training costs. When considering symbology on a next generation platform we needed to find a simplistic way to display information that is intuitive to use.”
So with all the aircraft on the same page as far as cockpit commonality is concerned, will Southwest accept a new flight deck? Possibly not.
As far as the cockpit layout is concerned, the present LCDs on the 737NGs may give way to the bigger LCD screens like those that will be found on Southwest’s 737 Classics and those that are seen on the 787. But the display format may not change from today’s 737NGs with the PFD/ND style. The overhead may less likely change, retaining the same automation deprived and aesthetically unappealing cluttered lever switches. The familiar throttle quadrant may not go anywhere, and the noisy trim wheel may stay as well. Primary control surfaces will remain the conventional hydraulic assist, devoid of fly-by-wire technology. The MCDUs may stick on, just like on the 747-8.
With the announcement of Southwest as the launch airline for the 737MAX, the fate of the flight deck is pretty much sealed. To hope for something radically new or appealing is now only a distant dream, with practicality, operating economics, training and safety taking a front seat. No one would want a crew to get confused with a fancy new deck and land up making a fatal mistake.
As of September 2011, Southwest operates a staggering 559 Boeing 737s, which includes a mix of Boeing 737-300s, Boeing 737-500s, and Boeing 737-700s. 150 Boeing 737-800s and Boeing 737-700s are on their way, along with orders placed for 150 737MAX aircraft. Since the day of its founding, 38 years ago, Southwest has continuously made a profit.
For the 737MAX-Southwest News:
For a list of Launch customers of the 737: