Boeing’s 737 Max makes first flight into cloudy market

 Boeing’s newest and smallest 737 Max jetliner took flight for the first time, into blue skies — and a cloudy, crowded market.
 The takeoff, at 10:17 a.m. Friday outside Seattle, was characteristically drama-free for the third of four planned models in the Max family. Boeing’s upgraded planes have largely met milestones on a schedule plotted years ago even as the manufacturer pushes single-aisle output to record highs.
 But prospects for the new aircraft — the Max 7 — are hazy. Sales have flagged as low-cost carriers migrated to larger, more economical models. Even Southwest Airlines Co., the launch customer for the Max 7 and largest operator of the 737-700, the jet’s predecessor, is part of the trend. The Dallas-based carrier has ordered 30 Max 7s, and 210 of its larger sibling, the Max 8.
 Chicago-based Boeing responded to the Max 7’s two biggest customers, Southwest and Canada’s WestJet Airlines, by stretching the narrow-body plane’s airframe to seat 138 people, a dozen more than originally planned. The new model also flies farther than other Max models or its competitors. With a range of 3,850 nautical miles, the new jet should be able to fly directly from Dallas to Honolulu.
 Competition is fierce. New models from Brazil’s Embraer and Canada’s Bombardier are jockeying for sales in the same sliver of the market: jets that seat between 130 and 150 travelers. France’s Airbus has all but conceded sales for its A319neo as it prepares to take control of Bombardier’s C Series through a joint venture forged last year.
 The flood of new planes might rekindle airline interest in the category, however, said Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst with Teal Group.
 “It could be the Max 7 stays in a small niche,” he said. “Or maybe the Embraer and C Series jets stimulate the 130-seat market. It is a notch up from the no man’s land of 100-seat-ers.”