Norwegian leapfrogs Southwest as first 737 Max operator

Five new planes you may fly in soon
Five new planes you may fly in soon

Norwegian Air Shuttle said that it will be the first to take delivery of Boeing's new 737 Max airliner, jumping ahead of Southwest Airlines, the carrier confirmed Thursday.

Being the first to take possession of the new jetliner is a sign of the fast-growing carrier's increasing stature among the world's airlines.

"Norwegian will now be the first airline to take delivery of the Boeing (BA) 737 Max and we will be the first airline in the world to operate this brand-new aircraft type," an airline spokesman said in an email.

Norwegian said it will take delivery of the first of its Max jets in May and "then it will take a little time before it enters operation," the spokesman added. The airline has ordered 100 of the jets.

But being the first comes with added challenges, as the first operator typically works out the early kinks of a new design. When Norwegian first took its 787 Dreamliner in 2013, its early operations were repeatedly disrupted by reliability issues with the advanced long-range airliner.

Related: Boeing chases airlines for stretch 737

Norwegian plans to use the single-aisle 737 Max, with its increased range, to fly between Europe and smaller cities in the U.S. The low-cost airline's long-haul operations from Europe are flown today with larger 787 Dreamliners.

norwegian boeing 737 max
A rendering of Norwegian Air Shuttle's soon-to-be-delivered 737 Max jetliner.

The airline has been at the center of a fierce controversy with U.S. airlines and their labor unions over the Department of Transportation's approval of the carrier's ability to fly from Ireland to the U.S.. The unions claim Norwegian will undercut wages for U.S.-based pilots and cabin crews or hire less expensive non-U.S. crews while flying to America.

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Southwest Airlines (LUV) was the first carrier to place a firm order for Boeing's updated single-aisle jet back in December 2011 and has long been expected to take the first jet from the plane maker. Southwest said Thursday that it won't take its first Max until July and it will start flying passengers on October 1.

Boeing's chief executive Dennis Muilenburg said Wednesday that the Max, which has been in testing since January 2016, will deliver during the second quarter, but did not say which airline would take the first jet.

Related: American Airlines eliminating in-seat screens on new 737 jets

Southwest has faced obstacles getting the Max into its fleet, first facing a now-settled labor dispute with its pilots over pay on the aircraft and the compatibility of the fourth generation aircraft into its all-Boeing 737 fleet.

Southwest is the largest operator of 737 jets in the world, and was the first airline the last time Boeing introduced a new generation of its workhorse airliner in 1997.

Boeing holds orders for more than 3,400 737 Max jets, which feature a pair of new engines and aerodynamic updates to cut fuel consumption by 14%.

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