Tuesday marked the end of an era for Washington manufacturing, the aerospace industry and one of the state’s signature companies as the final Boeing 747 was wheeled off the assembly line at a plant in Everett. Along with evoking nostalgia, the event brought up questions about what comes next.
In an age when Amazon has overtaken Boeing as the state’s largest private employer, and when Starbucks is readily identified with Seattle culture, it is easy to underestimate the impact of the aerospace giant on the economy of the Puget Sound region — and therefore the state. For generations, Boeing largely fueled and defined the state’s economic growth.
In one of many recent examples, last year a California company that is a Boeing supplier purchased 4.5 acres of land for $1.58 million at the Port of Camas-Washougal. The plan is to build two large manufacturing facilities.
While Boeing has long been associated with Washington — even after the company’s headquarters moved in 2001 —- the 747 has been the company’s iconic product for more than 50 years. It entered commercial service in 1970 as the first twin-aisle jetliner, a behemoth that could fly more people for more distance and more affordably than previously possible.
The 747 carried more than twice as many passengers as the largest previous airliners. With four engines and a distinctive second-floor hump that housed the cockpit, it was as notable for its appearance as its capacity.
But in recent decades, passenger airlines have moved away from jumbo jets, and U.S. commercial airlines quit flying 747s several years ago. Both Boeing and European rival Airbus have introduced lines of twin-engine jets that are more desired throughout the industry.
In the late 1980s, Boeing produced about one 747 a week; in recent years, it typically has built six a year. Most of those have been for cargo companies, and the plane unveiled Tuesday will be delivered to commercial hauler Atlas Air early next year.
The end of the 747 comes at a crucial time for Boeing. Crashes of 737 MAX airliners in 2018 and 2019 brought scrutiny to the company and to the Federal Aviation Administration’s inspection protocols. The company’s CEO was fired in 2020 and received severance pay of more than $60 million. And now Congress is debating legislation that would impact certification of two other 737 MAX models.
Meanwhile, The Seattle Times reported this week that Boeing lost more than 500 experienced engineers and more than 130 technical staff in November at its Puget Sound plants. “They chose to retire early with the realization they’d have a significant cut to their pension payouts if they delayed,” the Times reported.
The end of the 747 could eventually be viewed as a new beginning for an efficient, safety-conscious Boeing or as the symbolic demise of the company’s halcyon days. Considering that the 737 line remains the most popular commercial plane in the world, and that Air Force One remains a Boeing 747 and that Boeing products registered more than 7.8 million flights in 2021, Washington’s biggest manufacturer is on solid footing.
Convincing the public of that will be important to Boeing’s future, and replacing the 747 with other production in the world’s largest manufacturing building in Everett will be important to Washington’s future.
As they have been for more than a century, the success of Boeing and the success of our state are closely linked.