December 8, 2015 / 5:30 PM / 4 years ago

Boeing 737 MAX on track for early 2016 takeoff

SEATTLE, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Boeing Co marked the successful assembly of its first 737 MAX on Tuesday, signaling that the key program is on schedule for first flight early next year.

The first 737 MAX, which quietly rolled out of a Renton, Washington, hangar in November, represents the biggest upgrade of the company’s top-selling jet in 19 years.

Boeing marked the occasion on Tuesday by holding an employee celebration that was low-key by industry standards. “This is really just a celebration of the team,” said 737 MAX program chief Keith Leverkuhn.

But he said the milestone was significant. “A new plane is like a comet sighting - it’s very rare and very exciting.”

The plane is due to begin flight testing in early 2016, with first delivery to Southwest Airlines scheduled for the third quarter of 2017.

Boeing is turning out 42 single-aisle 737 planes a month currently and will increase to 52 a month in 2018. Officials declined to speculate on Monday how the production rate might change after 2018, though Boeing is widely expected to match rival Airbus’ recent decision to increase output to 60 a month of its competing A320neo plane in 2019.

The rollout comes as Airbus said it has won 4,443 orders for A320neo family planes, giving it 60 percent of the market for this category of fuel-saving jets.

Leverkuhn said Airbus took the lead because the A320neo was launched a year ahead of the MAX. Boeing was “very comfortable with how the market is settling out,” he said.

“We have to look at how the MAX has been doing since it’s been available, and since it’s been available, market share is 50-50. It’s just going to continue to be a continual dog fight in every campaign for us.”

Boeing sales chief John Wojick said last month that Boeing aimed to finish the year “close to” a book-to-bill ratio of 1, meaning Boeing will sell as many planes as it produces. A Boeing representative said on Monday the projection has not changed and would not be updated until January. December is among the most productive months for sales.

By consolidating assembly lines from its older 737 series, Boeing was able to add a new central assembly line for the MAX inside the Renton plant. In theory, Boeing has said, each line could produce 21 planes a month, giving Boeing the potential to raise monthly output to 63. (Editing by Alwyn Scott and Matthew Lewis)

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