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Shutdown likely at Boeing plant near Seattle as 737 MAX crisis extends

A Boeing 737 Max airplane being built for Norwegian Air International taxis for a test flight, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, at Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Wash. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee said Wednesday that an FAA analysis of the 737 Max performed after a fatal crash in 2018 predicted "as many as 15 future fatal crashes within the life of the fleet" during opening remarks at the committee's fifth hearing on the Boeing 737 Max. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SEATTLE -- The Boeing board is weighing a proposal from top management to temporarily shut down 737 production in Renton, with an announcement likely either after the financial markets close Monday or early Tuesday, according to a person close to the decision makers, who are meeting Sunday and Monday in Chicago.

It's likely Boeing will stop 737 MAX production this week and keep the assembly lines closed until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clears the jet to return to commercial service, which is currently expected around mid-February or early March, the person said.

"It depends on the return to service. How long is that going to take? Is it 60 days? Probably," the person said. "You can only build them for so long without delivering."

Ahead of the Christmas break, the imminent shutdown is tough news for Boeing's Renton workforce, though not unexpected nine months into the grounding of the MAX and shortly after government officials telegraphed that it's likely to extend to almost a year.

The person close to the discussions said Boeing intends to do what it can to have "as little impact on employees as possible." He said the company will transfer some of the roughly 12,000 people who work in Renton to other production facilities in the region, including the Auburn parts plant and the Everett widebody jet plant.

However, the other facilities don't have the capacity to absorb all the Renton workers, and substantial layoffs are likely.

Last week, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson pushed out approval for the MAX to fly passengers again into next year and then told Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in a meeting in Washington, D.C., to dial down public statements suggesting a return to service was imminent.

Privately, officials identified mid-February as the new target for FAA clearance, assuming no further slips in the schedule.

FILE - This Dec. 7, 2015, file photo shows the second Boeing 737 MAX airplane being built on the assembly line in Renton, Wash. American Airlines says it will keep the Boeing 737 Max plane off its schedule until Nov. 3, 2019, which is two months longer than it had planned. In a statement Sunday, July 14, American says the action will result in the cancellation of about 115 flights per day. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

It’s unclear if Boeing will continue production of the 737-based Navy anti-submarine plane, the P-8, which is built on a separate assembly in Renton and based on a model prior to the MAX. However, that is a low-production line, rolling out just one or two planes a month.

The MAX had been produced at a rate of 52 jets per month until the plane was grounded, and since then was cut back to 42 jets per month.

The impact of a MAX shutdown would ripple out through Boeing's 737 supply chain and would idle aerospace workers across the nation and internationally.

Among the most affected suppliers is Spirit AeroSystems of Wichita, Kan., which assembles the MAX fuselages, and sends them to Renton by train.

Another is CFM International, a joint venture between GE and Safran of France, which builds the jet's new LEAP engines at facilities around the U.S.

The current discussions around weighing a Renton shutdown were first reported Sunday by the Wall Street Journal. Boeing in response had no comment and simply repeated a statement sent out Thursday that “we will continue to assess production decisions based on the timing and conditions of return to service.”