Virgin’s first Max-8 aircraft finally takes off after long delay

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Seattle: The first of Virgin Australia’s new fleet of Boeing 737 Max 8s has finally taken off after manufacturing issues delayed the rollout of its new-look fleet by four months.

The aircraft – dubbed Monkey Mia – took off for Brisbane from Boeing’s Seattle base on Wednesday, four months after it was initially due to arrive. It is the first of 33 Max 8s due to join the Virgin fleet over the next five years.

Boeing Max 8s being manufactured at the Renton factory, Seattle.

Virgin chief operations officer Stuart Aggs said the new aircraft would be the backbone of the airline’s decarbonisation ambitions, a crucial part of owner Bain Capital’s plans to float the airline this year.

“We expect our fleet renewal program, combined with other fuel efficiency initiatives, to support over 80 per cent of out 2030 interim target to reduce the airline’s carbon emission intensity by 22 per cent,” Aggs said.

The first leg of the aircraft’s delivery flight will be powered by a mix of jet fuel and tallow-based sustainable aviation fuel from Neste.

Initially expected in February and then April, the first of the carrier’s eight 737s was delayed due to a “non-standard manufacturing process” used by Spirit AeroSystems during the installation of two fittings in the rear fuselage section.

Boeing and Airbus have been ravaged by supply chain issues since international flying resumed after COVID-19 in 2021. Boeing flagged at the Paris airshow last week that it did not expect to meet the demand for new aircraft for at least five years, with the delivery of new orders now expected to blow out until 2030.

“This is not an immediate safety of flight issue and the in-service fleet can continue operating safely,” Boeing said last month.

“However, the issue will likely affect a significant number of undelivered 737 Max aeroplanes both in production and in storage.”

The airline is set to receive between five and six additional Max 8s by the end of this year and two to three more in 2024, but it is not yet clear whether this timeline will be impacted by the ongoing delays at the manufacturer. Virgin has leased the aircraft from China Aircraft Leasing Group Holdings Limited.

The arrival of the aircraft was initially timed to launch Virgin’s inaugural Cairns to Haneda route, which also kicked off on Wednesday. The delivery delays mean Monkey Mia will not service this route until the end of July. The route is the carrier’s first foray into long-haul international services since it was plucked out of administration by Bain Capital in 2020. Virgin’s old guard had intended to start flying from Brisbane to Tokyo in March 2020, but that plan fell through because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virgin restructured its fleet when it entered administration in April 2020 to reduce costs. This meant the carrier dumped its wide-body fleet, which included Boeing 777s and A330s, and simplified its route map. In addition to the 30 Max 8s, the airline awaits 25 737-10s. The first of the 737-10s is expected next year.

The 737 Max 8 has a maximum range of 6570 kilometres and is at least 15 per cent more fuel efficient than Boeing’s former narrow-body iteration, the 737-800 NG.

New low-cost carrier Bonza became the first Australian carrier to operate the low-emission narrow-bodies earlier this year. Virgin’s temporary replacements – the 737-700s – have 48 fewer seats and a higher carbon footprint.

Two crashes in 2018 and 2019 grounded all Max-8s across the world for two years while the manufacturer addressed regulatory concerns. They were cleared to return to service in 2020 and are now used by 60 airlines all over the world.

This reporter travelled to Seattle as a guest of Virgin Australia.

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