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Originally published August 10, 2011 at 11:46 AM | Page modified August 11, 2011 at 1:44 PM

Albaugh: 'Six to eight months' until Boeing picks 737 site

Boeing will deliberate over "the next six to eight months" before deciding where it will build a new version of the 737 single-aisle jet. In Seattle on Wednesday, a group of economic-development leaders held the initial meeting for a campaign to persuade Boeing to build the new jet in Renton.

Times aerospace reporter

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Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Jim Albaugh told a crowd of several thousand employees at the company's 737 assembly plant in Renton last week that the company will conduct a careful selection process over "the next six to eight months" before deciding where it will build a new version of the single-aisle jet.

"We will go through the process and look at all the plusses and minuses. Renton clearly has a lot of plusses," Albaugh said, according to an internal Boeing news item, responding to workers' questions raising concern that Renton could lose the 737 work.

In Seattle on Wednesday, a group of about 70 business, government and labor leaders met to plan a campaign to persuade Boeing to build the new 737 in Renton.

One early goal is "to raise a lot of money — at least $600,000 to pay for a first-rate aerospace assessment by a national firm and to mount a lobbying/PR campaign," according to a letter sent out by the Washington Aerospace Partnership.

Concern for the long-term future of the plant rose after Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney on a July 27 earnings conference call said the company had other options besides Renton for a location to build a newly announced version of the 737 with a next-generation engine.

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

Albaugh made his comments at a Renton employee event last Thursday that featured music and a barbecue lunch. According to an account posted internally on the Boeing intranet, Albaugh said the company will "take a hard look at what makes the most sense for the customer and what makes the most sense for the corporation," echoing McNerney's position.

He added that "this place has an awful lot going for it" and mentioned the experience of the work force he was addressing and the extensive infrastructure at the Renton plant.

The current version of the 737 has a backlog of more than 2,000 unfilled orders, which is about five years of production work. But the new re-engined version of the jet that was announced with the July order by American Airlines is expected to extend the life of the 737 into the middle of the next decade.

Until McNerney's remarks last month, the assumption had been that any new derivative of the 737 would continue to be built in Renton.

The Boeing CEO's statements galvanized political, business and economic development officials in Washington state.

Tayloe Washburn, a lawyer appointed in June by Gov. Chris Gregoire to head "Project Pegasus" — the effort to keep the 737 or any successor jet in Washington state — convened the Wednesday meeting of the Washington Aerospace Partnership (WAP).

A letter sent out to invitees described plans to mount "a broad-based, sustained effort to ensure our state has the policies and programs in place that are important to aerospace companies."

In addition to Washburn, a former chair of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, attendees included Bob Drewel, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council, a coalition of local government entities that promotes economic development, and representatives of city and county governments from across the state.

Labor was represented by the heads of the two main Boeing unions — International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 751 President Tom Wroblewski, and Society of Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) President Tom McCarty — as well as Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council.

In an interview after the meeting, Washburn said his group will do everything it can to help Renton. It also aims to convince Boeing that other locations around the state could provide room for expansion, given the company's ambition to sharply hike 737 production well above current levels, which might strain capacity in Renton.

"I would like Boeing and, frankly, anybody in the aerospace business to think of our state as a big factory floor," Washburn said. "We have plenty of places that can accommodate them."

The Boeing board is expected to give the formal go-ahead next month for the re-engined version of the 737. Boeing will make its decision on the assembly site by next spring.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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