The first 737 MAX 7, registered N7201S, took to the skies for the first time on March 16, 2018. Image courtesy of Boeing.
After its ceremonial unveiling in early February, the Boeing 737 MAX 7, the smallest but longest-range member of the next-generation 737 MAX family, completed its first flight into a cloudy market. the jet, designed to seat between 140 and 160 passengers, took off at 10:17 AM Pacific Time on March 16, and flew for roughly three hours before landing back at Boeing Field in Washington. The flight enabled engineers to test the new aircraft's flight controls and systems in a homogeneous way.
The 737 MAX 7 complements the 737-700 model through enhancements such as new, more fuel-efficient CFM LEAP-1B engines, as well as a new wing and landing gear shared with the 737 MAX 8. Originally designed to seat 126 passengers, engineers opted to stretch the fuselage to allow it to seat at least 138 passengers in a low-density configuration, on par with the Bombardier CS300 and Airbus A319neo. Sales for the MAX 7 variant have been poor thus far, with only about 100 orders out of more than 4,000 total orders for the 737 MAX family. With a total range of 3,850 nautical miles, the 737 MAX 7 is able to fly from Dallas to Honolulu nonstop with a full payload. Its superb runway performance allows it to operate in hot/dry conditions, as well as from high altitude airports.
The 737 MAX 7 has the capability to carry 12 more passengers and fly 400 nautical miles further than the A319neo. Despite this, sales of narrow-body aircraft in the 100-160 seat range have been poor in recent years. The overall aviation trend that analysts are seeing is that while long-range, widebody aircraft keep on getting smaller and smaller (think 747s and A380s being replaced by 777/787 and A330/A350), airlines have been ordering more and more large narrowbody aircraft (737 MAX 10 and A321neo) in order to keep up with increased passenger demand. As such, the 100-160 seat market is pretty much void of significant orders right now.
However, Boeing is not giving up on small narrowbody aircraft just yet. Boeing product marketing regional director Jeff Haber stated that in the future, about "2,500 aircraft of its [the 737 MAX 7] size will need to be replaced." Many 737-700 operators, including Southwest Airlines, have an aircraft fleet that is not even close to retirement; thus, orders should start to pick up in the next few years or so.
Building on the lessons and successes of the completed 737 MAX 8 and 737 MAX 9 test campaigns, Boeing expects a relatively short test campaign for the 737 MAX 7, lasting well under a year. Currently, Southwest Airlines, the launch customer of the variant, expects to receive the first of the type in January 2019.