It was launched tentatively, as a last-ditch effort to stay in good standing with customer American Airlines, which once had bought single-aisle airplanes exclusively from Boeing but was placing orders with competitor Airbus.
Analysts called the company's strategy "silly," while another prominent customer said Boeing had taken the "Band-aid" approach to improving the product line.
But Boeing's 737 MAX program has wooed customers and quieted critics, logging more than 1,000 commitments.
More important for Washington, the more modest goal of introducing a revised 737 instead of designing an all-new replacement likely made it easier for Boeing to make a commitment to build airplanes in the state.
Boeing's re-engined 737 MAX will be built in Renton, where company workers have been producing single-aisle 737s since the 1960s. The company's decision to keep MAX production here ensures there will be years more work at the Renton site and for 737 suppliers in the region. Within a few years, the 737 MAX team will grow to at least 1,000 workers, Jim Albaugh, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told employees in December.
Despite industry analysts' predictions to the contrary, Albaugh doesn't anticipate a pronounced dip in demand for the existing 737 as introduction of the MAX grows near. Boeing plans to deliver the first 737 MAX in 2017, if not sooner.
Company executives like Albaugh, an engineer, had wanted to design and build an all-new, mostly composite single-aisle jet to replace the aluminum 737. But Boeing couldn't find a way to build as many as 60 composite jets per month or get an all-new plane to market quickly enough to compete with Airbus, which had already announced it was going to update the A320 line by introducing more efficient engines.
"Our customers have told us they want efficiency, and they want it soon," Albaugh has said of Boeing's decision to re-engine the 737 and make other improvements.
Boeing says 737 MAX customers will save 16 percent in fuel costs with the new jet compared to existing aircraft its size. And compared to the Airbus A320neo, the European company's re-engined competitor, Boeing thinks the updated MAX will be 7 percent cheaper to operate.
The MAX also will have improved passenger comfort, or at least the illusion of it, with improvements like Boeing's Sky Interior, which the company adapted from the composite 787 Dreamliner. With reshaped ceiling panels, innovative use of LED lighting and improved overhead bins, the Sky Interior creates a more spacious feel, Boeing says.
Boeing's decision to upgrade, rather than completely replace, the 737 likely worked in Washington's favor.
Consulting firm Accenture last year conducted a study for the state to determine Washington's competitiveness for the bid to win the 737 MAX. Accenture's Craig Gottlieb also considered the implications for landing future jet programs for Washington in a competitive landscape. The more a new airplane incorporated new technology -- including a higher use of composites -- the less of a shoo-in Washington became, Gottlieb said in an interview.
In other words, the deep roots of the 737 program in Renton were likely seen by Boeing as a benefit on the path to upgrade. Designing and building an all-new airplane, which would have required an all-new assembly process, would have been an opportunity to look at manufacturing sites elsewhere.
And had Boeing selected another location to build the next-generation single-aisle model, Gottlieb said, Washington would have been in "a less advantageous position in the long term."
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