Are you afraid of flying and want to make sure you aren't on a dreaded Boeing 737 MAX? Or are you maybe a social media guy who has been locking up perps for years and wakes up each morning fearful of aviation nerds correcting every post? For those who are into aviation and can identify both in your sleep at a 100% clip, you may head back to sleep.
This one is for those with complications differentiating the Boeing 737-800 and Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft. For "novice" aviation enthusiasts, I find it nearly a daily dilemma at an airport that sees both in our fleet mix. While the title of this article speaks to the most common variants, this also applies to the relationship between the Boeing 737-900 and the Boeing 737 MAX 9. With the context of the Next Gen Family's chronology, I believe it will become easier to identify correctly, regardless of aspects like the wingtip device or door layout.
I will start by saying that I am not a door counter. Never have been, never will be. If you are looking for "the door counting" method, seek advice elsewhere. Once you become comfortable discerning between the variants, you will notice other minute details that grow into dead giveaways. But let's first start with the basics. Perhaps the most telling feature in distinguishing between aircraft is the winglet device, followed by engine characteristics.
The Evolution of Winglets
In the late 1990s, Boeing's next series in their line of the Boeing 737 Family hit the skies - The Next Generation, representing a significant improvement from the Boeing 737 Classic Family. Older Boeing 737 Familes were successful for an extended period but were now inferior to the newer rival, the Airbus A320, and Boeing needed to make pivotal adjustments to better contend.
The variants developed were:
Southwest Airlines became the first airline to introduce the "Next Gen" series on December 17, 1997. Since then, they have become the largest operator of the family worldwide. The wingtips, primarily the most effective indicator between family variants, did not include winglets then. While few operators still fly "O.G." Boeing 737 NG aircraft, Sun Country has one - N813SY, pictured below. Alaska Airlines is another carrier featuring bare wingtips.
When the Next Gen aircraft first began to hit the skies, Boeing entered a joint venture with Aviation Partners, L.L.C., a member of The Washington Companies' portfolio, to improve the family's baseline design. Under this strategic partnership, Aviation Partners would begin to devise modified winglets to enhance range and fuel efficiency. First, the Boeing 737 B.B.J. (Boeing Business Jet) was certified for a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) in 2000, followed by the Boeing 737-800 a year later.
Air Berlin became the first airline to deliver a freshly installed Boeing 737-800 with winglets shortly after; thus, what we know today as a standard winglet was born. In rapid succession, deliveries featuring blended winglets became the default factory option, continuing for years.
This is where it will likely start to become confusing. In the early 2010s, Aviation Partners explored how to improve Next Generation aircraft's efficiency further. By this point, the order log for the series was over 6,000 airframes, and the Boeing 737 MAX was beginning to near entry into service (E.I.S.). Termed the "split-scimitar winglet," the modified design features a futuristic two-piece device, greatly resembling the future wingtip design of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.
The measurable refinements compared to the blended winglets were noteworthy. With a 2% drag reduction, more than 45,000 gallons of jet fuel and 476 tons of carbon dioxide per year are saved with the split-scimitar modification installed. With this effectiveness, despite aging airframes, airlines began quickly investing in these modifications and integrating them into their existing fleet.
Boeing 737 MAX
While, at a quick glance, the Boeing 737 MAX winglet is similar to the split-scimitar, it is actually very different. For those who don't stop to look at every airplane that flies overhead, a natural conclusion is that it is one and the same. The first instance of this for me was when my former boss would often mistake a B.B.J., which we frequently saw, as being a Boeing 737 MAX. Whenever I saw it on our flight tracker, I had to prepare a brief educational session about how it wasn't. Keep in mind that this was at a time that the Boeing 737 MAX was grounded, so there were tangible implications in making the differentiation understood.
Other distinctive contrasts come with the Boeing 737 MAX. While the Next Generation has three types of wingtip devices, the Boeing 737 MAX only has one. Its originality is crucial in determining if you are examining a Next Gen or a MAX despite its striking resemblance to the split-scimitar winglet composition. When reviewing the wingtip, pay attention to the acute angle of the strakes. These are featured exclusively on the following variants.
Boeing 737 MAX 7.
Boeing 737 MAX 8.
Boeing 737 MAX 9.
Boeing 737 MAX 10.
Boeing P-8 Poseidon
As a civilian, there will likely never be a day you end up on one of these (on purpose, at least), but if we are going to nerd out properly, I'm not going to NOT mention it. However, as is frequently the case with many commercial models, Boeing repurposed the Boeing 737-800 into a military variant capable of hunting and killing submarines. Thanks to its capability to detect submerged objects, these aircraft were heavily involved in the search and rescue efforts following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The wingtips on these aircraft are unique to only the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, featuring "raked" characteristics similar to those found on the Dreamliner. This improves the range and speed of the Poseidon, making it more attractive for other military branches, like the Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the Republic of Korea Navy. While the Next Generation Family stopped production in 2019, P-8 Poseidons continue to be produced.
In my professional opinion, the next best giveaway is the engine's aesthetics. These can be broken down into two parts - look and sound. I could spend time providing content on audible differences, but I have a good feeling that is officially where I would lose you.
If you are reading this, odds are you are also at an airport that sees both variants, a common occurrence at most airports in 2024. Pay attention to the difference in sounds between the NG and the MAX - they sound nothing alike.
The NG features one of the most distinguishable (another word for badass) sounds on commercial aircraft, while the MAX sounds almost like what you would imagine from a spaceship (if you have a tin hat, you may now promptly place it on your head). However, it should not get to that juncture because the engine variants are unique to each family.
Boeing 737 MAX 8
As I said, there are other minute details. For example, if you notice in the top picture, the tail of the aircraft features two different APU exhausts (the MAX is the one that appears straighter). Further, thanks to its larger powerplants, the MAX sits slightly higher than the Next Gen to ensure ground clearance with the improved engines. If you know enough about the MCAS, you already know how even the most minor features like this carry life-or-death consequences. But that is another topic for another day. Just know that the MAX is "taller" than its older siblings.
Everything else about the airplane is essentially the same. Crews can shift interchangeably between NG and MAX airplanes, the primary selling point for prospective buyers. Despite the frustrations, airlines do love the MAX - they are very reliable (when they are not grounded) and provide a much more modern flying experience for pilots. As a customer, you will likely not notice a difference other than the typical "new plane" smell that comes with each new fresh delivery out of Renton.
Full transparency - the real reason for this post is to pull it out of my pocket the next time this inevitably comes up in conversation. If nothing less, it has allowed me to pass the time geeking over my favorite aircraft. But either way, I do hope this has been helpful.
My two cents are that while Boeing has made life-altering mistakes in the design and production of the Boeing 737 MAX, they are quite a pleasurable atmosphere for customers to experience. It is my third-most flown aircraft model (behind the Embraer 190 and Boeing 737-800), and I have nothing but amazing things to say. No plane can hit the skies without 100% confidence in its safety and reliability, so put those intrusive thoughts away until the next scandal.