That’s how long Wichitans have been building nearly three-quarters of the veritable Boeing 737 airliner.
And Spirit AeroSystems hopes it will still be building them in another 50 years, a point underscored Thursday at a ceremony marking completion of the first 737 Max fuselage, the next iteration of the single-aisle commercial jet that first entered commercial service in 1968.
“This incredible aircraft, frankly, sets the standard for commercial aviation,” Spirit chief executive Larry Lawson said at the event.
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“… The truth is, it has benefited our community and our employees dramatically,” Lawson said. “I mean, we have multiple generations of families who have actually worked on the 737, and we’re incredibly appreciative of that.”
The Thursday morning event was attended by thousands of Spirit employees, local officials and Gov. Sam Brownback. At the event, the company had on display the first 737 Max fuselage, which is bound for Renton, Wash., where it will serve as part of the first 737 Max test aircraft.
It eventually will be delivered to Southwest Airlines, launch customer for the Max program, said Keith Leverkuhn, Boeing vice president and general manager of the 737 Max program.
Boeing has orders for more than 2,800 of the planes to 58 customers worldwide. Max, Leverkuhn said, is an abbreviation of maximum: maximum efficiency, reliability and passenger appeal.
Assembly of the first Max is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Flight testing is expected in 2016, with first deliveries in the third quarter of 2017.
The Max is the newest generation of the 737, which started with the Classic and was followed by the Next Generation.
The key improvement with the Max, Leverkuhn said in an interview after the event, is greatly improved fuel efficiency — 14 percent better than the Next Generation 737s in production today — achieved primarily through blended winglets and new CFM International LEAP-1B engines.
“That’s what this is really all about it,” Leverkuhn said.
Boeing also says the Max will have improved reliability and improved passenger appeal, largely through its Boeing Sky Interior.
In his speech, Spirit’s Lawson stressed the longevity of the 737 and its impact in Wichita.
“This is the 50th year that Spirit has been a participant in the 737 program, and that’s a really tough thing to fathom: 50 years,” he said. “For a product to have that kind of longevity is not just a testimony to the original idea and the concept, but the ability of our leadership to have the vision to adapt the product to the marketplace and be able to keep the product viable over a long period of time.”
“And, of course, our view is that 50 years is the beginning,” he said. “We expect to … be building 737s long into the future, especially in the configuration that’s now the Max, the thing that we’re here celebrating today.”
To be clear, Spirit technically has not been building 737 fuselages — and other parts such as the wing leading edge, nacelles, pylons and thrust reversers — for 50 years. The company is just this year marking its 10th anniversary.
Spirit was formed following the sale of Boeing’s commercial airplane operations in Wichita and Oklahoma to Onex Corp. in 2005.
A Boeing spokeswoman confirmed Thursday that the first 737 fuselages were built in Wichita. She added that the first 737 entered service for German carrier Lufthansa in February 1968.
Spirit and its Boeing predecessor have delivered 3,132 Boeing 737 Classics and, to date, 5,601 737 Next Generations.
For competitive reasons, Spirit officials would not disclose how many of its employees in Wichita work on the 737.
But to underscore the importance of the airplane to its work in Wichita, in the first half of 2015, Spirit delivered 262 737 shipsets — one shipset comprises the fuselage and other parts Spirit builds for one 737 — compared with 66 shipsets for the Boeing 787, its second-biggest program in Wichita.
And Spirit’s work on the 737 will intensify in the coming months.
Spirit expects to increase its monthly rate of 737 production from 42 to 47 a month this year and to 52 a month by 2018. That increased 737 production will include the Next Generation versions as well as the Max, which is being integrated into the Next Generation line, said Cindy Hoover, Spirit’s vice president of 737 Max.
“We encourage our friends at Boeing to sell as many of these as they can, and I think they’ve got a good backlog built up,” Brownback said in his remarks at Thursday’s event. “We want more.”