Boeing updates 737 for a new era

By Dan DeLong/Red Box Pictures, for USA TODAY  Boeing's Next Generation 737 takes shape at the company's Renton, Wash., plant.

The new version, the 737 Max, which is scheduled to make its debut in 2017, is designed with new engines to burn less fuel than its three predecessors, to help airlines pare costs and leave less of a carbon footprint on the global environment.

But at its most basic, the Max will be the same 737 stalwart the traveling public has come to know the last 44 years. It's a single-aisle jet that will ferry up to 215 passengers on both short and cross-country trips, and offer efficiency that's helped make the 737 the best-selling commercial jet in history, with 9,745 sold.

"They're known as the workhorse of the industry," says Mike Van de Ven, COO of Southwest Airlines, which has exclusively bought 737s for its fleet since the airline's birth in 1971.

PHOTO GALLERY: History of the Boeing 737

"It really beats the competition on fuel burn. It really beats the competition on reliability, and it really had a very effective maintenance program. And they just made that airplane better and better over the last 20 or 30 years."

Southwest, which has the largest fleet of 737s in the world, with more than 550, is reaffirming its faith in Boeing and the 737 by ordering 150 Max jets. American Airlines is sold, too, having ordered 100 Max planes in July before seeking bankruptcy protection in November.

READ MORE: Blockbuster order will make Southwest first to fly 737 MAX

ALSO ONLINE: Southwest debuts new Boeing 737 in Baltimore

"There's a lot of interest in our industry and among our customers in the next generation of aircraft," says Virasb Vahidi, American's chief commercial officer. "Customers see it as a better product and younger fleet, and airlines see it as an opportunity to lower our costs."

A cheaper fuel bill could mean that rising airfares may not rise so quickly, say travel industry analysts.

"It hopefully will mean more stable pricing for consumers," says Bryan Saltzburg, general manager of TripAdvisor flights. Lower costs for an airline, he says, "should transfer to the consumer pocketbook."

Outfitted with new engines, the Max will use 10% to 12% less fuel than its most current Boeing peer, the Next-Generation 737, company officials say. That holds particular appeal for airlines, with jet fuel making up 25% to 40% of their costs, and whose profitability is threatened as the price of crude oil stays around $103 a barrel as it was on Friday.

"As an airline, there are several things you can do to combat high fuel prices, but one of the biggest, most important things is just having equipment that is designed to deal with it," says Southwest's Van de Ven.

Despite seeking bankruptcy protection from creditors, American is planning to buy the Max planes as part of its plans to reorganize and replace its older, fuel-guzzling fleet.

It also still plans to buy 130 of the Max's competitor — the A320Neo from Boeing's chief European rival, Airbus.

"It's very much a part of our restructuring plan," says American's Vahidi.

"Obviously, as we lower our cost structure … it would provide us with more flexibility to be able to grow the airline successfully and provide our customers with a more extensive network that flies to destinations that they want to fly to, and times of day they want to fly."

The fuel savings from the Max will be significant, he says. When matching 100 of the new jets to an equal number of the 737-800s that American currently flies, Vihadi says, "It's around $85 million per year in fuel costs that will be saved."

That, he says, "is a really big deal in terms of improving our operating costs."

New jets will cost less to maintain because they're younger, and the updated 737 Max will release a smaller amount of carbon dioxide into the air, airline officials say.

"They're good for the environment," Van de Ven says.

"They're good for the noise footprint, and they're good for our customers, because all of those efficiencies mean lower costs."

Common transport

If you've ever flown coast to coast or to many points in between, chances are you've ridden on a 737.

Before the Max, there were three versions of the plane: the original that took flight for the first time in February 1968; the Classics, which began flying passengers in 1984; and the Next Generation, which made its debut in 1998 with new wings and engines that enabled it to go farther and faster than its predecessors while burning less fuel.

But all represented upgrades in the original concept of a narrow-body jet with the ability to fly medium to long-haul distances. "They got the design right," says Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst with the Teal Group.

"Throughout the 737's life, we have been able to offer an aircraft … that has the best operating costs of any aircraft in the single-aisle market, and that is probably the single biggest contributor to its popularity," says Beverly Wyse, vice president and general manager of Boeing's 737 program.

Even with Max, demand remains so high for the 737 that Boeing in January began delivering current model 737s at the unprecedented production pace of 35 a month. It plans to ramp up to 42 a month at the start of 2014.

Driving the continued popularity of narrow-body planes such as the 737 has been the growth of low-cost airlines such as Southwest and Europe's Ryan Air, and now the booming air travel markets in China and India.

"They're seated at the right size, where you can do a lot of frequency between marketplaces," says Van de Ven of Southwest, which makes more than 10 trips a day between Baltimore and Chicago.

"That's one of the reasons I think the narrow body is such a big seller," Van de Ven says. "You can give the consumer many more trips and choices and itineraries because the demand is there to fill up that size of an airplane, and not a 250-seat airplane, 10 times a day."

Demand for 737s and similar narrow-body jetliners has soared with rising fuel prices.

"We're seeing older aircraft be replaced even more rapidly because that fuel-efficient aircraft is so critical to their fleet," Wyse says.

Bigger inside

The Max will boast a new interior, first introduced in the 737 two years ago, that features bigger luggage bins, a more open feeling in the cabin, and better lighting similar to what's offered in Boeing's wide-body 787 Dreamliner.

But the Max will have competition. It's scheduled to hit the airways two years after Airbus plans to introduce the Neo, the latest version of its own narrow-body A320 jet.

The Neo will burn 15% less fuel than the current A320s, and the jet roared out the gate with 1,289 sold in 13 months, making it the fastest-selling jet program in modern times, says Chris Jones, vice president, North America sales, Airbus Americas.

"I think the market has endorsed the Neo clearly as the leading, most fuel-efficient single-aisle airplane out there," says Jones, who believes that the Neo's popularity pushed Boeing to respond. "I don't think the Max is the optimal solution, but I think the success we've had with the Neo has forced that decision to take place sooner than Boeing would have liked."

Neal Dihora, an analyst for Morningstar, also says that buzz around Airbus' Neo likely led Boeing to launch the Max with its new engines rather than wait to develop a whole new jet.

"I think they still want to do a new single-aisle aircraft," Dihora says. But "I think Boeing had to essentially react to the reality that they were losing a lot of market share. … So my sense is they sat around a room and said, 'Let's have a new engine option, too.' If you can't beat them, follow them."

Boeing disagrees. "It really was more of a question: Did the customers prefer to have the fuel-efficient gain right now, or were they willing to wait a little bit longer for an all-new aircraft?" says Wyse, who added that operating costs for the Max will be 7% lower per seat than the Neo.

A completely new single-aisle plane will arrive eventually. "It's something that we'll definitely do at some point," Wyse says, "at the time the market tells us it's ready for a new airplane."

In the meantime, Aboulafia of the Teal Group doubts airlines will pass fuel savings to passengers in the form of lower fares. But he says the shift in engines will still benefit the public.

Reducing fuel burn "helps everybody," he says. It's "good for manufacturers, good for consumers, good for the airlines. There are no losers in this."


No butts about it: Fewer U.S. airports allow smoking

According to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, indoor smoking is completely banned at 27 of the 35 busiest U.S. airports.

Soon it will be 28. Well, make that 27 and 3/4.

Denver International Airport, currently the only public building in Colorado where indoor smoking lounges are still legal, is on its way to becoming smoke-free.

At a May 18th airport press conference, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock announced that lease-holders for three of the four smoking lounges at Denver airport have agreed to shutter those lounges by the end of this year and remodel or replace them with non-smoking concessions.

The Aviators' Lounge in the Jeppesen Terminal will become a branch of Jamba Juice; the lounge on the B Concourse will become a barbecue restaurant called the Aviator's Sports Bar; and the Mesa Verde Restaurant and Bar on the A Concourse will be remodeled, removing its smoking area.

Cast Your Vote

The fourth lounge, inside Timberline Steaks & Grill on Concourse C, will not shut down until after its lease expires in 2018, but Hancock said his goal "is to get it to shut down sooner than later," so that Denver Airport can "join the ranks of Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and many other major U.S. airports who have eliminated smoking in the past few years."

While Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) issued a statement applauding Denver's mayor, the airport and "the owners of the smoke-filled businesses who are supporting this transition to a smoke-free future," the response on the airport's Facebook page has been mixed, with several critical comments among those voices applauding the decision.

Via e-mail, M. James of Denver speaks out for smoking travelers: "I just think this anti-smoking has gotten too far. There are tons of restaurants where people can eat without smoke. At least one smoking area at DIA should be open for the smokers who have a layover or a delayed plane."

James mourned the demise of Denver Airport's smoking lounges, but expressed appreciation for those at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, which are located throughout the airport and include a new one (on the Concourse F mezzanine level) in the recently opened international terminal complex.

In addition to Atlanta, smokers can still find an indoor place to light up at Dulles International Airport and at airports in Tampa, Memphis, Salt Lake City and several other cities. Some of these smoking areas are simply small, ventilated spaces; others are inside a restaurant or bar that may require a minimum purchase.

At Memphis International Airport, for example, the smoking area is inside the post-security Blue Note Café; at Tampa International Airport, there's an outdoor smoking patio at the Landside Terminal and caged, outdoor smoking patios at Airsides A, C, E and F.

In Las Vegas, McCarran International Airport currently has two indoor spots where passengers may smoke: the pre-security Budweiser Racing Track Lounge and an enclosed casino gaming lounge at the D Concourse, near Gate D-46.

When McCarran's new Terminal 3 opens, on June 27, there will be two more enclosed gaming lounges, near gates E-1 and E-15. Another gaming lounge that will welcome smokers is planned for the C Concourse, just past the C Annex Security Checkpoint, and will be available to passengers who walk over from the A and B concourses as well. No date has been set yet for the opening of that Concourse C lounge.

Why add more airport smoking lounges at McCarran when Denver International Airport is getting kudos for its plan to close theirs?

"There is a significant segment of our customer base that wishes to smoke, and past experience has demonstrated that these customers will often light up, even in areas where smoking is not authorized," says McCarran spokesperson Chris Jones. He adds that 'unauthorized' smokers cause problems, such as "smoke in public restrooms or, in some cases, alarms being set off as individuals attempt to open doors that lead to secured outdoor areas." said Jones.

"The gaming lounges help to alleviate these concerns by providing separate, enclosed and ventilated spaces for these adults to smoke prior to their outbound flights," he said.

Not all smokers are in favor of smoking rooms at airports. Patricia Murphy, a smoker from Seattle, says "Shut them down!" She said the last time she smoked in one of those rooms - at Tokyo's Narita Airport - she felt sick for hours. "No ventilation system can handle the amount of smoke in those rooms. They smell so awful!"

Murphy says she tries to have a cigarette before heading into an airport and often finds herself smoking just outside airport doorways, getting "lots of dirty looks."

She has found one airport smoking lounge she can recommend: The one at Singapore's Changi Airport, which is outside, in a sunflower garden. "You're literally standing in towering sunflowers," said Murphy.

SINGAPORE AIRPORT: iPad-toting team eases fliers' frustrations

MORE: Read previous columns

Harriet Baskas writes about travel etiquette for and is the author of the airport guidebook Stuck at the Airport and a blog of the same name.



World's best airport restaurants

We've all been there. Tired. Hungry. Staring into the cold, dark eyes of a Panda Express.

The dearth of decent airport dining can make even the savviest world traveler feel stranded in a culinary heart of darkness. With nothing but a mediocre Hudson News paperback to pass the interminable hours before boarding, what is the hungry traveler to do but submit to Sbarro?

Before you dive headlong into the abyss, consider your coordinates. The world's leading international airports are seriously upping their gourmet game, offering everything from menus by Michelin-starred chefs to food stalls stocked with local delicacies. At these six spots, you'll eat surprisingly well before boarding.

1. Hong Kong International (HKG)

Tian Xia Dumplings will not win you over with its looks. Located within the elevated Dave & Busters that is HKG's dining and entertainment concourse Terminal 2, this unassuming kiosk sells an array of hearty Hong Kong street-food classics, like big bowls of fish noodles as well as the namesake dumplings, which are made to order and served alongside a fiery red chili oil sauce.

2. Los Angeles International (LAX)

Built in 1961, the modernist Theme Building at LAX looks a bit more Star Trek than Saarinen. But channel your inner Shatner at the spider-legged Encounter restaurant, an emblem of mid-century futurism that serves a surprisingly tasty menu of local California produce, fresh seafood and steamed edamame topped with fleur de sel, sesame pepper and zesty ponzu sauce.

3. London Heathrow (LHR)

The first airport restaurant from celebrity chef and Zen master Gordon Ramsay is in Terminal 5, Heathrow's sweeping metropolis of luxury shopping and poorly placed escalators. The varied Plane Food menu includes crispy duck salad, risotto with English peas and seared cuts of dry-aged British beef. If your time in T5 is limited, order from the two-course Plane Fast list, where a mere ?16.95 gets you pumpkin soup and Suffolk pork belly in under 25 minutes.

4. Austin-Bergstrom International (AUS)

Texas barbecue doesn't get much better than Salt Lick BBQ and an outpost of the preternaturally popular 800-seat restaurant in Driftwood is located in the West Terminal (but fills the entire airport with the bewitching scent of brisket). Try a sloppy, but satisfying, pulled-pork sandwich topped with slaw and Original Recipe barbecue sauce for a taste of Hill Country on the tarmac.

GREAT AMERICAN BITES: Texas ribs and brisket at The Salt Lick

PHOTOS: Great Texas BBQ at The Salt Lick

A sample meal from Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food restaurant in Heathrow Airport.

5. John F. Kennedy International (JFK)

Airports can be lonely places. The small plates and sangria at Piquillo, the first tapas bar to open in an American airport, are designed for sharing. Located in JetBlue's Terminal 5, Piquillo has a menu by Tia Pol chef Alexandra Raij, easily the most flattering lighting of any room in any airport, and a communal bar perfect for chatting up fellow travelers. Bienvenidos a Nueva York, indeed.

6. Amsterdam-Schipol (AMS)

A stopover in Europe's fourth largest airport is a decidedly civilized affair. After taking in fine art at the AMS Rijksmuseum, head to Bubbles for an impressive raw bar complimented by 15 Champagnes by the glass. The sleek lounge surrounds an enormous saltwater aquarium and serves everything from plump oysters on the half shell to Dutch herring, served in the traditional style with fresh bread and onions.

Readers, where have you encountered the best airport food? Share your picks in comments below.

nt to light up a cigarette before or after your next flight? Good luck with that.
  • A designated smoking area outside the departures terminal at Jacksonville International Airport.

    By Eileen Blass, USA TODAY

    A designated smoking area outside the departures terminal at Jacksonville International Airport.

By Eileen Blass, USA TODAY

A designated smoking area outside the departures terminal at Jacksonville International Airport.

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According to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, indoor smoking is completely banned at 27 of the 35 busiest U.S. airports.

Soon it will be 28. Well, make that 27 and 3/4.

Denver International Airport, currently the only public building in Colorado where indoor smoking lounges are still legal, is on its way to becoming smoke-free.

At a May 18th airport press conference, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock announced that lease-holders for three of the four smoking lounges at Denver airport have agreed to shutter those lounges by the end of this year and remodel or replace them with non-smoking concessions.