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The Evolution Of Boeing's 737 Jetliner


In the aftermath of two deadly crashes, a lot of attention has been focused on the Boeing 737 Max. Multiple investigations have been launched, and Boeing faces a lot of questions about how the plane was certified, about how an automatic system designed for safety may have gone wrong and about the software updates that Boeing has promised to fix that system. For now, the 737 Max remains grounded.


Now we're going to take some time to look back at how this plane, the best-selling commercial jetliner of all time, came to be what it is today and how despite the crashes and the pending investigations it may be around for a while yet. The original 737 dates back more than 50 years to a time when it was known as the Baby Boeing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Newest arrival in the Boeing family of airliners, the 737 attracts a crowd. The stubby, twin-jet job is designed for short hops up to 1,300 miles, and it's more economical than its big sisters.

KELLY: Bob Bogash was around for those early days. He's a retired Boeing engineer who helped build the 737 prototype - smaller than Boeing's existing fleet.

BOB BOGASH: The 707 went to London and Paris and Rome. And the 727 went to Chicago. And the 737 was going to go to Syracuse and Buffalo. So it wasn't very romantic. But since it was the airplane that I kind of cut my teeth on, I felt it was going to be a biggie.

KELLY: And he was right. After the first 737 was delivered in 1967, Bogash traveled the world, helping airlines get settled with their new planes.

BOGASH: The first ones - some of them only had, like, 85 seats. Times have changed a lot since then.

KELLY: It now carries more than double the number of passengers for which it was originally designed.

BOGASH: More than double the number of passengers, and it flies across the North Atlantic. And it flies to Hawaii. And it does all these things that nobody ever dreamed of.

KELLY: If you fly at all, you've likely been on a 737. It's the one with one single center aisle, three seats on each side.

CHRIS BRADY: It's a great aircraft.

KELLY: Chris Brady - he's a commercial airline pilot who flew the 737 for 18 years. He wrote a book called "The Boeing 737 Technical Guide." He says he and other pilots love to fly the plane partly because it's old school.

BRADY: It's an aircraft that you can disengage all the automatics and hand fly it, as we call it. You know, you can fly it like a - like the Cessna that you learned to fly in. It handles very nicely.

KELLY: And customers agreed. The 737 was a hit. Boeing rolled out a second generation, then a third.

GRAHAM WARWICK: In the aircraft industry, that's kind of the natural place to move on to a completely new airplane.

KELLY: Graham Warwick - he's technology managing editor for Aviation Week.

WARWICK: There's been so much technology and advance over that period of time that you can go and design a new airplane that can make a dramatic step change in performance and efficiency if you go back to the drawing board.

KELLY: Warwick says Boeing was intent on building something new, a new family of planes that could replace not just the 737 but also its larger siblings. But that was a tall order. They tried for years, but by 2010, Boeing was kind of stuck.

WARWICK: They couldn't really get it all to come together. They couldn't get the technology to come together in an affordable way. They couldn't get the airlines behind them enough to launch a brand new airplane, which is a very expensive undertaking. So they kind of put a pause in there. And during that pause, Airbus launched the A320neo.

KELLY: Airbus, the French company that back in the 1980s had launched a plane to compete head-to-head with the 737 - and now Airbus was rolling out an upgrade, the A320neo. As the name suggests, it was a new version of their already newer plane with new engines that were 20 percent more fuel-efficient. And that set the scene for what happened in 2011.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's a rainy morning here in Paris, but the Paris Air Show is officially underway. Once again, it's all about Boeing versus Airbus.

KELLY: This is June 2011. Boeing's CEO of Commercial Airplanes, Jim Albaugh, was fielding questions from Bloomberg.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Everyone's wanting to know what you're going to be doing about...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...The 737. Are you going to have a new airplane? Are you going to redesign the 737? Isn't the pressure on now that Neo is doing so well?

ALBAUGH: Well, Neo is doing well. But, you know, we have a very deliberate process we're going through. We're looking at the market. We're talking to our customers. We're looking at the technology, and we're not going to be rushed into a decision.

KELLY: But Graham Warwick says Boeing was rushed into a decision as Airbus pursued its customers, including American Airlines.

WARWICK: Airbus went to American with the A320neo, and American ordered A320neos. But at the same time, it said, if Boeing launches a re-engined 373, we will buy the re-engined 737 as well as the A320neo. So really at that point, Boeing knew the writing was on the wall and that the airlines who at that point were desperate to get more efficiency 'cause fuel prices were going up and up and up - they wanted better fuel efficiency, and they wanted it now, not in five, 10, 15 years. They wanted it now.

KELLY: In other words - no time to design a brand new plane. And Warwick says when it comes to aviation, airlines typically get what they want. So that same year, 2011, Boeing set aside plans for a completely reimagined plane and instead announced the 737 Max featuring fuel-efficient engines just like the competition.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The Max uses 14 percent less fuel than current 737s. That's a lot less fuel, a lot less. How'd we do that - ingenuity.

KELLY: But a problem - the 737 sits low to the ground, lower than the Airbus. The new engines were bigger, and they didn't fit.

Like, they were just literally too big to fit under the wing.

BRADY: Exactly that's it. That's it.

KELLY: Chris Brady, the pilot, says the solution Boeing found was to move the engines forward and up on the wing. In testing, engineers found this change meant the engines themselves were generating a little lift, and that in turn could pitch the nose of the plane up.

BRADY: Boeing was stuck. They couldn't put the engines anywhere else, so they had to put in an artificial system to lower the nose. And that's what the MCAS system is.

KELLY: The MCAS system is the automated flight control system we have heard so much about recently. Investigators are looking at whether it malfunctioned in the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last fall as well as the Ethiopian Airlines crash this month. Boeing is working on a software update that would address problems with the system and make it easier for pilots to override it. Originally Boeing hadn't even told pilots the system existed or explained that it could automatically kick in based on data from a single sensor. Chris Brady says all this leaves him disappointed in Boeing but still confident the problems can be fixed.

BRADY: It's a very sad chapter for the 737, but it will continue to be a very safe aircraft overall and have a - you know, a long career ahead of it. I have no doubt that there will be 737s flying still in 30, 40 years' time.

KELLY: Bob Bogash - remember the engineer who helped build the prototype - today he's the caretaker for that prototype, which lives in the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

BOGASH: I don't think a lot of people realize how personal these airplanes are to most people at Boeing. And, you know, any accident at all - it just feels like a stab to the heart really. Everybody realizes - and I'm not speaking for Boeing. I've been retired a long time. But, you know, everybody working on these things realizes that the people that are climbing on these things with their families - and they're entrusting their lives on a - to people they never met, which is the - us and the - I fly on them, and you fly on them. And my wife flies on them. And so it's very depressing when there's an accident - any accident.

KELLY: Still, Bob Bogash also believes the 737 has plenty of years left in it.

BOGASH: Well, this airplane will have outlived my entire career and probably for sure outlive me, too.

KELLY: So a vote of confidence from a man who has been there since day one. A dissenting vote came today from Garuda Indonesia, which announced it intends to cancel its order for the Boeing 737 Max. When and if that can happen is unclear because of their contract. So is whether other airlines may follow suit. For now, Boeing has more than 4,600 orders stacked up for the Max, leaving it with plenty of work ahead both building planes and rebuilding the trust of the flying public. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.