Saturday, October 1, 2011

Could the 737 MAX be built in Long Beach?

City leaders are hoping to lure a planned next-generation Boeing 737 assembly plant to Long Beach, a move that would reinvigorate the community's long history of aerospace production.

Boeing has announced it may move its existing plant in Renton, Wash. - near Seattle - as it develops a new, more fuel-efficient engine and upgrades for the popular jet.

The new version, expected to debut in 2017, is being called the 737 MAX.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to marshal city resources to lure the plant here, and Mayor Bob Foster said that he's been in contact with an unnamed Boeing executive about the proposal.

"I told the executive at Boeing that this council and this city would do everything in its power" to bring this plant here, Foster said.

He cited city-sponsored business enterprise zones, which can offer tax breaks and other incentives, and other measures that could smooth the way.

"Whatever we do, we do not want to present a disorganized picture here," when talking with Boeing executives, he said.

The United Aerospace Workers Local 148, which represents about 1,300 Boeing workers in Long Beach, said they would do whatever is needed to further the effort.

"We have the land, we have the talent, and we want to do everything we can to bring those jobs here," said George Burden, financial secretary for UAW Local 148.

The city's last remaining major airplane production facility, Boeing's C-17 plant, employs roughly 6,000 people in production, marketing, engineering, maintenance and other jobs.

That's down from the tens of thousands employed during the heyday of aviation here from World War II into the 1980 s, when Douglas Aircraft, now Boeing, built military planes, DC-8 s, DC-9 s and the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 at plants surrounding Long Beach Airport.

Still, Long Beach has a possible 737 assembly site at its former 717 plant, which shuttered in 2006. The 79-acre property includes an estimated 1 million square feet of space and has been mentioned as a possible site for a film studio or automaker.

Boeing's 737, first introduced in 1968, has been assembled in Renton since the beginning. The jet's engine, fuselage and many parts are built at plants across the country before being shipped to Renton for final assembly, similar to the way Boeing builds its C-17 cargo jet in Long Beach.

Despite the effort, however, Long Beach officials may have joined the process a little too late.

In June, before any final decision was made on the 737 MAX, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire launched a campaign to ensure 737 production remains in that state.

The campaign, known as "Project Pegasus," has assembled a coalition of labor, business and community organizations from across the state to support future 737 production in Renton.

"Washington state has always been the home of the 737, and I'm committed to doing everything in my power to ensure it stays that way," Gregoire said in a statement.

As for Boeing, they've made no announcements about the future location of the 737 assembly plant or if engine or fuselage production will relocate.

The current 737 jet engine is one of the most popular in commercial aviation and can be outfitted for Airbus' A320 jets.

But Boeing is keeping quiet other than to say a relocation is possible.

"No decision on the production location of the 737 MAX has been made at this stage," Karen Crabtree, a Boeing spokeswoman, said Tuesday. "We will follow our established processes regarding production decisions, evaluating what makes the most sense for our customers and for the corporation."

Crabtree said, however, that the current assembly plant in Renton has an "experienced workforce and existing infrastructure" that will be in consideration in the assessment process.

"We anticipate having more clarity on where to build this new variant in six to eight months," she said.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney also indicated in a recent conference call that the current 737 assembly line will require major upgrades to accommodate increased production rates.

"There would be major investments (needed) in Renton beyond the currently planned production rates," McNerney said. "Until we sort that all out, we can't confirm where we're going to put it precisely."

Boeing plans to step up production of its existing 737 model from 31.5 per month now to 42 per month by 2014. By the latter half of the decade, production is expected to reach 50 to 60 per month, said Crabtree.

(Kristopher Hanson - Long Beach Press Telegram)

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