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 outgoing gaps in Boeing’s product line, including being a direct replacement of the 737-400, being an option for airlines in the USA to replace ageing Boeing 727’s, and to fill the void being 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 a 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 modified 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 737-400X became the 737-800 but is significantly longer at 39.4m (129ft 6in) and seats up to 189. The project was launched on 5 September 1994, with commitments for over 40. First delivery was to Hapag Lloyd in April 1998. This is by far the most successful series of 737 and the huge backlog of orders will ensure the 737’s production until at least 2012.
The 737-800 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, was the biggest hit here in Europe with low-cost carriers. The largest owner of 737-800’s is in fact the much lamented Ryanair, which (as of 2017) has an entire fleet made up of 365 -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, Air Berlin, Ethiopian Airlines and EgyptAir.
The 737-800 however has sadly not been without incident, as of 01/2017 13 aircraft have been involved in crashes, resulting in the deaths of 601 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 was struck by an Embraer Legacy 600, which was working a delivery flight from the Embraer factory, over the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, deep in the heart of the Amazon. While the Embraer 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 on the delivery flight of 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 indeed the worst one for all versions of the Boeing 737 so far, took place on May 22nd, 2010, when Air India Express Flight 812, a 737-800, overran the runway on landing at Mangalore International Airport, killing 158 passengers including six crew on board. The airliner overran beyond the middle of the runway hitting the antenna and crashed through the fence at the end of the runway going into the valley 200 feet below. Although the 8,000 ft 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 happened on April 4th, 2016, when Batik Air Flight 7703, a 737-800 was in the takeoff roll in Halim Perdanakusuma Airport, Jakarta, when its left wing tip struck the tail of a TransNusa Air Services ATR 42-600 crossing the runway under tow and separated the most of the vertical tail plane as well as the left wing from the ATR, rupturing the portside fuel tank. Both aircraft caught fire and passengers were evacuated without injury.
Today, the Boeing 737-800 remains by far the most popular variant of the 737 in history. As of 01/2017, there have been 5,124 737-800’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 due to be being delivered in late 2017.
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 aircraft arrive and depart across the globe, carrying millions of passengers a year and covering a distance that could circumnavigate the globe dozens of times.