Reported from Seattle by: Chris Sloan, Airchive.com founder and editor-in-chief
Note: this piece was originally published in June 2013 before Boeing announced that its 737 production rate would rise to a record production rate of 47 aircraft per month by 2017.
On the evening of March 18, 2013 Boeing’s Renton Plant rolled out its first Boeing 737, a 737-800 bound for Panamanian Airline COPA, at the astounding new production rate of 38 aircraft per month. Boeing had only reached 35 airplanes per month, its previous historic high commercial production rate in January 2012. 2 days later on March 20, 2013, Boeing delivered the 7500th 737, the 7,229nd example built at Renton (more on this later). By Spring 2014, the rate is expected to leap to 42 aircraft per month, and Boeing announced on Oct 31 that production would rise to a record 47 aircraft per month by 2017. In 2015, Renton will begin production of the new 737 MAX that is due to enter commercial service in 2017, 50 years after the 737 first entered service in 1967! The Boeing 737 is the best-selling and longest continuously produced commercial airliner of all time with over 10,500 deliveries and orders. As of April, 2013 between the new Max (1,234) and current the Next-Generation (4,395), the 737 backlog stands at 3,136 aircraft. With the increased production rates, the current order book will take 6 ½ years alone to clear. Boeing’s current market outlook estimates 23,000 new narrow body airliner orders in the 737 / A320 families category over the next 20 years. Three draw dropping data-points stand out:
- 40% of the world’s jetliner fleet has been manufactured at Renton.
- Renton has produced an astonishing total of over 15,000 aircraft making it one of the most prolific aircraft factories, and the most prolific jetliner factory in history.
- With approximately 5,600 737s in service, 25% of the world’s large jet fleet (non RJ) are Boeing 737s.
With eye-popping numbers like this, one has to ask how this relatively compact factory copes with the demands placed on it? As is often the case, history is a prelude to the present and predictor of the future. This story of superlatives dates back to the early 20th century. The land on the marshy shores of Lake Washington, a few miles southeast of Seattle, on the Cedar River, was used mainly as a hay farm. The land was shortly transferred from its private owners to the state of Washington and finally the Federal government in 1941 as US involvement in WWII looked inevitable. According to Boeing’s Corporate Historian, Mike Lombardi “Boeing began construction in Renton of the XPB-1 Sea Ranger, an experimental reconnaissance flying boat for the US Navy. Exactly one of these was constructed when the order was cancelled to make way for production of the B-29 Superforetress for the US Army Air Force. This was the most technologically advanced airplane of its day and at the height of production, Renton built 5 airplanes built per day and 160 built per month over 4 lines”. By the time production ceased in May 1946, Boeing had built an incredible 1,119 B-29s over a two and a half year period. The Renton plant was returned to the government in 1946, but re-opened in 1948 by Boeing to build the C-97 Stratofreighter, which became the basis for the famous Boeing 377 Stratocruiser airliner. The uber-luxurios “Strat”, with its double deck cabin was considered the “747 of the 1950s”. Boeing built 883 C/KC-97s and 56 377s at Renton.
Extra: Original Boeing 377 Memorabilia here.
The next Renton milestone literally changed the world. It’s hard to believe that it has been almost 60 years since the May 1954 rollout of the Boeing 367-80 at Renton. This Dash 80 was the prototype for the KC-135 Stratotanker and set the stage for the first commercially successful jet airliner, the legendary Boeing 707 which kicked off the jet age. The first production Boeing 707 was rolled out at Renton on 28 October 1957 and production continued to the last commercial 707 in 1978 and E-3 AWACS in 1991. There were a total of 820 KC-135s and 1,010 707s built at Renton, including 154 Boeing 720s.
Extra: Original Boeing 707 Sales Brochures and Technical Briefings here.
The same location was the home of the iconic Boeing 727. Up until the 737 surpassed it, the 727 was the world’s highest produced commercial jetliner with all 1,832 built between 1963-84 at Renton. All 1,050 of the 757, the 727’s heir apparent were built between 1981-2004, on what is now line 2 of the 737 program.
Extra: Original Boeing 727 Sales Brochures and Technical Briefings here.
Extra: Original Boeing 757 Sales Brochures and Technical Briefings here.
Lombardi points out a little known fact that “Everett wasn’t the only place for Boeing 747 work as the first 4 747s built were refurbished at Renton.” In December 1969, a Jumbo destined for Pan Am (N732PA) landed short when landing on the 5,382 foot-long runway at Renton Municipal Airport. The right wing landing gear was torn from the aircraft and the number 3 and 4 engine nacelles contacted the runway. Up until, the building of 747 Factory at Everett in the late 1960s, the Renton final assembly hall for the 707s and 727s was the largest building in the world by volume. Today, Everett receives the lion’s share of the buzz, but Renton rules by sheer numbers.
Renton production wasn’t just limited to things with wings either. 24 Boeing Jetfoil commercial hydrofoil ship and 6 PHM USS Pegasus Class Missile-ships were built here as well.
Renton Production Numbers (as of February 2013)
- 1 x XPPB-1 Sea Ranger
- 1,119 x B-29A Superfortress
- 24 x TB-50H Superfortress
- 888 x C/KC-97 Stratofreighters
- 1 x 367-80 (Dash 80 prototype)
- 820 x C/KC-135
- 1,010 x 707/720
- 1,832 x 727
- 1,050 x 757
- 24 x Jetfoil commercial hydrofoil ships
- 6 x PHM USS Pegasus Class Missile-ships
737 production at Renton (7,491 through February 20, 2013)
- 1,114 x 737-200 (1967- 1988)
- 1,113 x 737-300 (1984-1999)
- 486 x 737-400 (1988 – 2000)
- 389 x 737-500 (1990-1999)
- 69 x 737-600 (1998 – 2006)
- 1,089 x 737-700 (1997 – 2013)
- 111 x 737-700 BBJ
- 15 x 737-700C
- 14 x 737-700 AEW&C
- 2,809 x 737-800 (1998 – 2013)
- 21 x P-8A/I
- 18 x 737-800 BBJ
- 52 x 737-900 (2001-2005)
- 155 737-900ER (2007-2013)
- 6 x 737-900 BBJ
Birth of a legend: The Baby Boeing
Due to the bustling production of the 707 and 727 production and future Boeing SST production during the 1960s jet boom at the plant, 737 production didn’t begin at Renton. At 95 acres and 2.3 million square foot, the plant was just too busy to take on another program. The first 271 Boeing 737-100s and 737-200s, built between 1966 and early 1970, were produced at a factory adjacent to Boeing Field.
It’s hard to comprehend that the world’s most successful airliner was almost killed. Initial airline reaction to the 737 was tepid at best, with Lufthansa taking the first 21 Boeing 737-100s, entering service in February 1968. United placed the second order for the 737 with 40 orders for the stretched 737-200. The Dash 200 became the successor to the 737-100 (only generating 30 orders) and new standard of the first generation. United’s 737-200s began service in April 1968. Due to industry capacity and a severe economic downturn in 1970, airliner orders nearly came to a halt. Boeing having just launched the 747 was seriously affected and had it not been for the Air Force’s order for 19 T-43s (military 737), the program would likely have been cancelled. In an effort to cut cost and increase efficiency all singe aisle programs were consolidated at Renton The 737 moved to the major assembly building 4-82 at Renton beginning with L/N 272. 737s and 727s were built in same building, with aircraft arranged in 2 rows at angles to the wall. This production system would last well into the 1990s and have severe consequences in the years to come as we’ll delve into later.
Extra: Original Boeing 737 Sales Brochures and Technical Briefings here.
From a sales standpoint, the 737 wasn’t exactly a barn burner through the 1970s as it took 10 years to reach 500 planes sold with the 500th example delivered to Gulf Air in 1977. Nevertheless, the order book gradually began to gain momentum especially as airlines such as Southwest, Frontier, United, Delta, Lufthansa, Air California, and British Airways warmed to the type’s economics with its ability to fly profitably on short-haul segments because of its fuel-efficient twin-engine and 2-man crew configuration. The June 1971 introduction of the 737-200 Advanced model after L/N 135 that gave the Boeing baby twin a 15% increase in payload and range over the original -200s was a particular boost, even in the face of rising fuel prices and the weak economy of much of the 1970s and early 1980s. The 200s were produced until 1988 with 1,114 aircraft rolling off the line.
The Boeing 737 really came into its own when the 2nd generation 737 series entered service in 1984, beginning with Southwest Airlines. First flying on February 24, 1984 as the 1,001st 737 built, the 737-300 featured many improvements including a CFM56-3B-1 high-bypass turbofan which generated significant improvements in fuel economy, range, and reduction in range. The fuselage was stretched by 9 feet, 5 inches over the 737-200 adding passenger and cargo capacity that led to improved cost per passenger mile. The flight deck was updated with a “glass” cockpit, a first in a single-aisle airliner. The wing and tailfin incorporated additional changes enhancing the Baby Boeing’s aerodynamics. The 737-400 stretched the platform even further entering service in 1988. A 737-200 sized version, the 737-500 entered service in 1990. The 2nd generation 737 family became a phenomenally successful workhorse for the world’s airlines for a variety of missions. Its success partially led to the demise of the 727 as many airlines built their fleets around the 737, particularly LCC phenomena’s Southwest and America West, as well as Chinese carriers who began to order in large numbers. A total of 1,988 of the 2nd generation 737s, now known as Classics, were built between 1984 and 2000. The 2,500th 737, a 737-300 was delivered to Southwest Airlines in June 1993.
Clearly the pace was quickening, but all this success attracted unintended and unwanted attention from a certain competitor in Toulouse. In part 2, we’ll look at how Boeing responded to the Airbus A320 threat, the highs and lows of the 737 program in the 1990s, the reinvention of the 737 production process including the moving assembly line and “move to the lake”, and how Boeing is ramping up production to 42 737s per month and gearing up to build the Max beginning in 2015. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with some surprising factoids on the “Baby Boeing”.
Big Facts for The Baby Boeing
- Typically, about 50 gallons (189 liters) of paint are used to paint an average 737. Once the paint is dry, it will weigh approximately 250 pounds (113 kilograms) per airplane, depending on the paint scheme.
- With approximately 5,600 airplanes in service, the 737s (early 737s, Classic and Next-Generation) represent a quarter of the total worldwide fleet of large commercial jets flying today.
- More than 331 airlines in 111 countries fly 737s.
- On average, over 2,000 737 airplanes are in the air at any given time.
- One 737 takes off or lands every 2.0 seconds.
- For all 737 models, there are approximately 54,500 scheduled flights per day. This means that nearly 1/3 of all commercial flights are on 737s
- The 737 family has carried more than 16.4 billion passengers; that is equivalent to every single man, woman and child flying at least twice. (2012 world population was 7 billion)
- The 737 has flown more than 113 billion miles; equivalent to approximately 608 round trips from the earth to the sun.
- The 737 family has flown more than 176.5 million flights.
- The 737 family has flown more than 251 million flight hours; the equivalent to one airplane flying more than 28,656 years nonstop.
- 10,000 737s stacked on top of one another would be approximately 406,000 feet or 77 miles (124 kilometers) high, and is equivalent to 149 Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world, stacked on top of one another.
- 10,000 737s at any one time would carry approximately 1,500,000 passengers.
Extra: View Full Boeing Renton Tour Photo Gallery here.
Special thanks to: Boeing’s Doug Alder, Jr; Michael Lombardi, and Erik Nelson for their invaluable time, expertise, and assistance in the writing of this post.