Among the most popular aircraft in Boeing’s range, the 737-800 is the driving force behind hundreds of major airlines, and has truly found itself a niche among the low-cost carriers of Europe and the United States.
The 737-800 is the second member of Boeing’s Next Generation 737 family, designed to be a stretched version of the 737-700. The aircraft was chosen to fill many gaps in Boeing’s product line, including being a direct replacement of the 737-400 and an option for airlines in the USA to replace ageing Boeing 727’s, as well as filling the void left by the recently discontinued McDonnell Douglas MD-80/-90 range following the merger of McDonnell Douglas with Boeing in 1997. Originally, the 737-800 was to be considered as an Extended Range version of the 737-400 when the project was launched back in 1994 rather than being its replacement, going under the original project title of 737-400X. This was changed early on, however, when it was decided the aircraft would take a new place in the Next Generation family of domestic jet airliners.
The 737-800 was designed to be twice as efficient as the aircraft it was intending to replace, burning only 80% the amount of fuel per hour than the outgoing MD-80 series. According to the Airline Monitor, an industry publication, a 737-800 burns 4.88 US gallons of fuel per seat per hour.
As mentioned, the 737-800 is, for all intents and purposes, a stretched version of the 737-700, including a lengthening of the fuselage by 3m ahead of the wing, and 2.84m behind. Modifications, however, didn’t end there, as the CFM56 engines were altered to the -7B24 versions instead of the -700’s -7B20’s, allowing for an increased engine thrust of 26,400lbf. The aircraft also inherited many things from the preceding -400, including four overwing exits and a bulbous tailskid on the aft section of the fuselage. With the increased size of the aircraft, many other features, including the tyres, wheels and brakes, were upgraded, and the main landing gear structure was resized to suit.
The project was launched on September 5th, 1994, with committed orders for over 40 units. The aircraft made its first flights in late 1997, and was delivered to launch customer Hapag-Lloyd in mid-1998. The aircraft’s nearest competitor is the Airbus A320, and can carry up to 189 passengers in a single-class configuration. From 2001, the 737-800 included Winglets as a standard feature; the first Boeing 737 to do so. Later additions included a short field performance improvement package, developed in 2005, to allow GOL Airlines to operate their 737-800’s into the 4,341ft Santos Dumont airport in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, it has also become an option on all 737-800’s and standard on the 737-900ER.
Almost immediately, the 737-800 was lapped up by most major airlines in the USA, but, surprisingly, saw its biggest sales here in Europe with low-cost carriers. The largest owner of 737-800’s is in fact the much lamented Ryanair, which (as of 2018) has an entire fleet made up of 449 -800’s. Other operators include the aforementioned GOL of Brazil, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Thomson, Alaska Airlines, TUI, Southwest Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, Transavia, KLM, El Al, Lion Air, Garuda Indonesia, Jet Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and EgyptAir.
The 737-800, however, has sadly not been without incident. As of 11/2018 21 aircraft have been involved in crashes, resulting in the deaths of 587 people.
The first crash of a 737-800 was no fault of its own. On September 29th, 2006, a brand new 737-800 working for Gol Transportes Aéreos collided with an Embraer Legacy 600 over the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. While the Embraer, which was on a delivery flight from the factory, was able to limp to a nearby air force base, the 737 spiralled out of control and broke up; killing all 154 aboard. The cause of the mid-air collision has been a matter of opinion. While the Brazilian Air Force’s Aeronautical Accidents Investigation and Prevention Center concluded that the accident was caused by errors committed both by air traffic controllers and by the American pilots aboard the Embraer Legacy, the NTSB determined that all pilots acted properly and were placed on a collision course by a variety of “individual and institutional” air traffic control errors.
The next crash was on May 5th, 2007, when Kenya Airways Flight 507, carrying 105 passengers and nine crew, lost contact and crashed into a swamp on a flight to Nairobi, Kenya from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, after making a scheduled stop at Douala, Cameroon. There were no survivors.
One of the more spectacular incidents involving the 737-800 occurred on August 20th, 2007, when China Airlines Flight 120, inbound from Taipei, caught fire shortly after landing at Naha Airport in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. Passengers were thankfully able to evacuate the aircraft before it exploded in a huge fireball, being caught on camera by people in the adjacent terminal. At a news conference, investigators revealed that a bolt, which had come loose from the slat track, had punctured the right wing fuel tank, creating a hole 2–3 centimetres in diameter.
The worst incident involving the 737-800 however, and was at the time the worst accident involving a member of the Boeing 737, took place on May 22nd, 2010, when Air India Express Flight 812 overran the runway on landing at Mangalore International Airport, killing 158 passengers including six crew on board. After overrunning, the aircraft hit an antenna, crashed through the fence, and plummeted down a 200 foot ravine. Although the 8,000ft runway is sufficient for landing, there was no bare land at the end of the runway on the table top airport to account for mistakes.
The latest incident involving the 737-800 occurred on September 28th, 2018, when Air Niugini Flight 73 on a flight from Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, undershot the runway and landed in a lagoon. The plane rapidly filled up with water but 46 of the 47 passengers were able to escape before the plane sank. The one fatality, a male passenger, had evacuated the aircraft but drowned before he could be rescued. The aircraft sunk in 100 feet of water, and its wreck has been designated a navigational hazard to boats.
Today, the Boeing 737-800 remains by far the most popular variant of the 737 in history. As of 11/2018, there have been 5,129 737-800’s delivered, including 21 Boeing Business Jet variants, and that number continues to rise. The -800 has also undergone a multitude of customer conversions, the first of which was in 2011 when United Airlines operated the first U.S. commercial flight powered by a blend of algae-derived biofuel and traditional jet fuel; flying a Boeing 737-800 from Houston to Chicago to reduce its carbon footprint.
In February 2016 Boeing launched a passenger to freighter conversion program designated the 737-800BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter). Boeing started the program with orders for 55 conversions with the first converted aircraft delivered to West Atlantic, a UK-based cargo carrier, in April 2018.
In all, the Boeing 737-800 has become one of the world’s most popular and most reliable aircraft. Every day, thousands of these sturdy planes arrive and depart across the globe, carrying millions of passengers a year and covering a distance that is the equivalent of several journeys to and from the moon.