A look inside Boeing's 737 MAX factory
In early 2020, before COVID-19 ravaged the world and shuttered the airline industry, Boeing's factory in Renton, Washington, ground to a halt.
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The latest version of the planemaker's best-selling commercial aircraft, the 737 MAX, had been grounded for nine months following two fatal crashes, and undeliverable finished aircraft were piling up around the factory, with even employee parking lots at Boeing's Seattle-area facilities serving as storage space for the planes. The factory would need to take a breather until more space could be freed up.
After arguably the most intense scrutiny an aircraft type has ever undergone by regulators, the 737 MAX was recertified by the FAA in December 2020. Since then, even with the ongoing pandemic, things have been quite different in Renton.
The MAX has become a workhorse aircraft in commercial fleets around the world. Since recertification, more than 630 MAX aircraft in service with about 45 airlines have flown more than 1.5 million combined hours, according to Boeing senior vice president Mike Flemming, with over 600,000 total flights operated.
Those numbers are likely to increase exponentially as Boeing makes an effort to scale up production of the aircraft to meet surging demand from airline and aircraft leasing customers.
Boeing is attempting to get production to a consistent rate of 31 new aircraft a month — down from a peak of 52 in April, 2020, but a notable increase from depressed pandemic-era rates, and a challenge given the labor shortages and supply chain disruption throughout the global economy.
TPG recently had a chance to tour the factory and see the production at work.
The Renton factory is where Boeing produces all of its narrow-body models, including military derivatives such as the P-8 Poseidon, a modified 737-800 that functions as a reconnaissance plane. In the past, Boeing's also built the 707, 727 and 757 in Renton.
More than 14,500 commercial airplanes have been built in Renton.
We toured a few of the production lines, not the entire factory, and saw a few 737 MAX aircraft in different stages of completion.
The Renton factory is where the planes are assembled, but the different components are built around the world. The fuselage, for instance, is built by Spirit Aerosystems in Witchita, Kansas, and shipped to Renton by train. Then, Boeing workers join the wings, tail, engines, and other parts of the plane, before installing everything else, like the control systems and wiring.
Production at Renton includes all models of the 737 MAX — the -8, the denser high-capacity -8-200 ordered by European low-cost carrier Ryanair, the -9, and the two newer variants still undergoing FAA certification, the smaller but higher-range -7 and the larger -10.
Notably, we also saw a few planes destined for U.S. airlines. American, United, Southwest and Alaska all operate the MAX within the U.S., and during the tour we saw planes for all of them except American.
The day after the tour, I flew to Phoenix for a one-on-one interview with Bob Jordan, Southwest's CEO. Having seen several of his airline's planes being built the day before, and knowing that Southwest is eagerly awaiting the 737 MAX 7 to be cleared by the FAA, I asked Jordan about the planes.
He told me that as keen as the airline is on the smallest MAX jet, the airline is working with Boeing to keep things flowing in the meantime. Among other things, that's meant taking delivery of ordered 737 MAX 8 aircraft during delivery slots that had originally been intended for MAX 7 (Southwest will accept those MAX 7 jets once the plane is cleared during delivery slots originally scheduled for MAX 8 units).
"We stay really close to Boeing because the MAX is a great aircraft, period, 7 or 8," Jordan said. "Boeing is being a great partner."
"We already have agreements into 2023 to [swap -7 and -8 deliveries]", he added. "Ultimately, we'll get the -7, it's a great aircraft."
It's not immediately clear when Boeing will reach its 31-per-month output, nor when it will be able to scale up beyond that.
Regardless, airlines continue to order the planes and await their new fleets. For now, though, Boeing's Renton facility is churning back to life.