Eight times a month, Ryanair takes delivery of a 737-800 jetliner at Boeing Field in Seattle, Wash., and flies it nonstop to Ireland, often with just two pilots on board. The distinctive yellow, white and blue airplane fresh out of the factory departs late at night, crosses over largely uninhabited regions of Canada, Greenland and Iceland, and touches down midday in Dublin.
One night this spring the familiar ritual was joined by a milestone as the Irish carrier welcomed the 400th 737-800 into its all-Boeing fleet. It was a reminder of the central role that single-aisle jet has played in the rapid growth of the world’s largest international passenger airline.
Joe Ryan, Ryanair’s Seattle-based delivery manager, has seen his share of airplanes change hands and says the pace is quickening.
“It’s nice to be here for the 400th,” he said. “When I started here two years ago, we had the 350th delivery and we were getting two planes a month. It’s eight now.”
The 737-800 has helped make Ryanair one of the busiest airlines in the world. The low-cost carrier averages 1,800 flights per day and is projected to transport well over 100 million passengers this year. It ferries travelers in and out of 31 countries and 200 airports. Routes stretch from Norway to Morocco. Ryanair flights, on average, last 2½ hours.
Michael O’Leary, Ryanair chief executive officer, said he prefers the 737 as his flagship airplane because of its reliability. By 2024, he expects to have more than 500 737-800s and 737 MAXs in the fleet.
The 737 is Boeing’s fastest-paced production line, rolling out 42 airplanes per month to fill a backlog of well over 4,300 orders for the single-aisle airplane. Ryanair’s milestone jet was built in just 10 work days in Boeing’s factory in Renton, Wash., painted over three days, and flight tested and certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in two-plus weeks.
On its way home to Dublin, it traveled from continent to continent without a fuel stop, usually something only the bigger jets do. It covered 4,300 nautical miles (4,950 miles, or 7,960 kilometers) in 9 hours and 24 minutes, passing just below the Arctic Circle at 41,000 feet (12.497 meters).
“The winglets on the 737 allow us to do that,” said Ryanair pilot Mark Logan, explaining how the vertical wingtips cut down on drag and increase fuel efficiency.
Fellow Ryanair pilot Brendan Davis holds the distinction of flying the first Boeing 737-800 delivery airplane back to Ireland in 1999—and now the 400th. He’s been on dozens of these flights, more than any other pilot. The novelty has worn off, but the significance of the latest milestone was not lost on him.
“It’s a big deal,” Davis said. “It’s all good with this airplane.”
Ryanair routinely brings its commercial pilots to Seattle on six-week rotations to test out the new jets that leave the factory and then fly them home on a delivery run.
Fabian Schone, a 10-year Ryanair pilot based in Italy, tested the 400th a week before it left for Ireland and pronounced it fit for service. Sharing the flight deck with Boeing flight test pilot Scott Sullivan, Schone steered the new jetliner along the ocean coast, performed takeoffs and landings at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., and never strayed farther than 80 miles (129 kilometers) from the Seattle area.
“To me, the 737 is a perfect airplane,” Schone said. “It’s very reliable with all the modern automatics necessary for a safe operation but still a pilot’s plane, which you can fly manually very well.”
Once Ryanair’s 400th was on the ground in Ireland, there was no time for celebration. After the jet was towed into a Dublin hangar, the pilots were barely out of their seats when a half-dozen Ryanair technicians boarded and began installing equipment that would put the airplane in service in as little as 24 hours.
Soon, the cycle would begin anew as another 737-800 worked its way through the production line back in Renton. How the 737 airplanes come together so quickly on the assembly line—42 per month now, 57 monthly by 2019—remains a manufacturing marvel even to the people who fly them.
“It’s amazing how little time it takes to build them,” said Logan. “It was nice to do the 400th; it was nice to bring that one back.”
By Dan Raley