Stockpile of Boeing 737 MAX jets assures Moses Lake years of work
Moses Lake, Washington, doesn't have commercial airline service, but the casual visitor to Grant County International Airport might assume otherwise. Shiny Boeing 737 MAX jets are parked wingtip to wingtip in row after row on two sides of the expansive airfield. They sport colorful liveries from a wide variety of exotic carriers such as Xiamen Air, Ukraine International, Ural Airlines and Donghai Airlines, to name a few.
The reason? When the MAX was grounded in 2019 after two deadly accidents, Boeing kept on manufacturing the airplane. Today, one hundred or more undelivered MAX’s are still parked at the airfield in Moses Lake, awaiting modifications. The work is lasting so long that some technicians and machinists who were sent there from Boeing's Puget Sound facilities are now buying homes and putting down roots.
A Boeing spokesperson said the company is consolidating its undelivered 737 inventory in Seattle and Moses Lake and doing the needed rework on the single-aisle jets in Central Washington. Port of Moses Lake Airport Director Rich Mueller said Boeing has had between 100 and 140 MAX jets parked around the airfield lately.
"They have been willing to make us the center of return-to-service and we're grateful, we absolutely are," Mueller said in an interview on the tarmac.
The semi-arid climate in Moses Lake is conducive for longer-term storage of metal aircraft and the relatively close proximity to Seattle makes it easier to rotate in crews with maintenance specialties for visits. Mueller said some of those workers have decided to relocate permanently.
"So, we've got some great new Moses Lake-ians now out here thanks to this project," Mueller said.
By the end of the 20-month global grounding of the 737 MAX model in late 2020, Boeing had 450 finished jets on hand that could not be flown – "a year’s worth of production," as Boeing CEO David Calhoun explained. In its fourth quarter earnings report this past January, the company said the number of MAX aircraft still undelivered was down to 250.
“Here's the punch line,” Calhoun said during a recent presentation to investors at the 737 delivery center in Renton, Washington. “It takes as many or more hours for us to prepare an airplane and return to service as it does to assemble it in the first place.”
Boeing CFO Brian West told the audience at a Cowen aerospace/defense conference in February that Boeing had the capacity to complete modifications on around seven 737s per month. At that rate, a steady whittling down of that inventory will take years.
“We expect most inventoried airplanes will be delivered by the end of 2024,” a Boeing spokesperson wrote in a follow up email Tuesday.
Getting those stored jets into the hands of airlines would give a significant cash flow boost to Boeing. Boeing gets paid for the bulk of each airplane sale upon delivery.
West identified several limitations that could constrain a ramp up in deliveries of the stored aircraft. Those included competing demands on Boeing’s skilled workforce and uncertainty whether some foreign airline customers still want all of the aircraft they ordered before the grounding, which was closely followed by the pandemic-era travel slowdown.
Well over half of the remaining 737s in storage were built for Chinese or Russian airlines. The Russian ones can't be delivered now because of sanctions. It's unclear how soon Chinese airlines will resume taking deliveries amid rising tensions between the U.S. and China.
The MAX grounding lasted much longer in China as it was the last country to give the OK to resume flying with the model. It was only this past January that several Chinese airlines put the first of their existing MAX fleets back into service. Boeing and aircraft lessors have started looking for new operators for a small number of unwanted 737 MAX jets. The planespotting community in the Northwest has documented at least two stored 737 MAX aircraft in recent weeks being repainted in the livery of Qatar Airways. One of those planes was originally outfitted for Russia's S7 Airlines.
In 2019, Boeing announced it would temporarily hire several hundred workers in Moses Lake, population 25,000, to support the storage and maintenance operation there. Few would have predicted at the time how long demand for those skilled aircraft workers would last. Boeing’s jobs website continues to list open positions in Moses Lake. Currently, the company is seeking experienced flight line managers with a pay range of $106,250-$143,750. That far exceeds the average annual wage in Grant County, which was $52,303 in 2021 according to the state Employment Security Department.
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