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Boeing Factory Tour & Future of Flight

There's Plenty for the Plane Buff in the Seattle Area
 

A stylish modern building houses Boeing's 'Future of Flight' exhibit which is the starting point for their Everett Factory Tour.

Read through this eleven part series for full information on the attractions, exhibits and rides you can expect to enjoy.

 

 

Most of the Seattle area aviation attractions are strongly (and necessarily) themed on aviation's past.

There is, of course, one huge exception to this - and the word 'huge' can literally be applied to Boeing's main assembly building which possesses the largest volume of any building in the world.

A Boeing factory tour, supplemented with time in their Future of Flight attraction before or after, gives you a chance to see state of the art airplane construction in a vast scale.

The Many Different Aviation Themed Attractions Around Seattle

Seattle is one of the birthplaces of the US aviation/aerospace industry, along with obvious other places such as Kitty Hawk and some not quite so obvious places such as Wichita.

Whether for this reason or purely by accidental chance, the greater Puget Sound region has a treasure trove of aviation themed attractions and activities.  This eleven part series details many of them.

0.  Aviation Themed Attractions in the Seattle Area - intro/overview

1.  Museum of Flight, Seattle

2.  Boeing Factory Tour & Future of Flight, Everett

3.  Flying Heritage Collection, Everett

4.  Historic Flight Foundation, Everett

5.  Museum of Flight Restoration Center, Everett

6.  Heritage Flight Museum, Bellingham

7.  Fly in a glider/sailplane/balloon

8.  Special Events

9.  Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, McMinnville, OR

10.  Other Regional Aviation Museums

Boeing Factory Tour/Future of Flight - Everett

Boeing has several different production facilities in the Seattle region.  Its largest is up in Everett, about 24 miles north of downtown Seattle, and located around the periphery of Paine Field.  This is where Boeing assembles its widebodied 747, 767, 777 and 787 model planes.  The narrowbody 737s are assembled slightly south of Seattle, in Renton, WA.

A visit to Paine Field is always fascinating, because you're sure to see planes that have recently been or are currently being assembled for all sorts of airlines around the world, many of which you've surely never heard of before.  In addition there are often some intriguing 'white tail' planes - planes for which there has not yet been a publicly announced buyer.

A view view of parked planes at Paine Field - new planes pending delivery, and some older planes returned 'home' for upgrades and maintenance.


Boeing's main assembly building in Everett claims to be the world's largest building both by volume and by usable space, with a total of 472 million cubic feet of space (13.4 cu m) and 4.3 million sq ft of floor space (398,000 sq m).

As an aside, the world's second largest building as measured these ways is an Airbus building in Toulouse, which is about one third the size.  The third and fourth largest buildings also have an aerospace theme - third being the Aerium in Germany (originally intended as an airship hangar) and the fourth is the Vehicle Assembly Building that towers over the entire Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

It is a fairly easy drive north on I-5 to get there, with the general commuter flow of traffic tending to be from north to south in the morning and from south to north in the afternoon, so you'll probably escape the worst of the freeway congestion when you go there.

Figure on 30 - 45 minutes driving time to get from downtown Seattle to the Boeing tour site at their Future of Flight building.

One of the 'Dreamlifter' planes at Paine Field in Everett - four modified secondhand 747-400s that are used to fly 787 parts to Everett for final assembly.


A Boeing factory tour is in two parts.  The main part is exactly as you'd expect - a guided tour through part of their main assembly building.  The other part is time in the 'Future of Flight' facility on the other side of the highway.  This is part museum, part interactive amusement arcade, and part gift shop/cafeteria.

The procedure for going on one of these tours is rather unpleasant.  You are 'strongly recommended' to book in advance; a recommendation I concur with.  But when you do so, you find you are charged a $2.50 'convenience fee' for booking/buying your ticket online.

Just so as there's no misunderstanding, the people who enjoy the most convenience for selling what is at best only a semi-changeable ticket are Boeing.  You are paying them a fee for their convenience.  Some other tour operators offer participants a discount if they'll book their tickets online in advance, but Boeing charges you extra.

You are then told you have to be there at least 30 minutes prior to the tour starting.  Why?  Based on my own experiences, 30 seconds is all that is necessary.  Actually, in some places, Boeing even recommend '30 - 45 minutes'.

One has to wonder if the reason for getting you to their facility so far in advance of a tour commencing is to encourage you to spend time in their two gifts shops and cafeteria.

What with hidden fees and long checkin times, it seems that Boeing is becoming more like the airlines it sells planes to.

One has to hope that Boeing's programming of the software in its planes is better than its programming on its site.  After completing a ticket purchase, I tried to then click on the link to 'Visitor Tips', but that brought up an error page telling me I wasn't authorized to view that page.  I was also not authorized to view the page of FAQs, or even the page with information about spending money in their gift shop.

Way to go, Boeing.  Not.

Oh, and talking about hidden fees, you aren't allowed to take any personal items on the tour.  This includes cameras and camcorders, cell phones, purses and other carried items, binoculars, and 'etc'.  Boeing will, however, happily rent you a storage locker for 'a small fee'.

There are storage lockets immediately upon entry to the Future of Flight building, and the rental fee is $1 for a small locker or $2 for a larger one.  There are only 76 lockers, and Boeing staff acknowledged that in the busy summer months, there are times when all lockers are rented and there are no more available.

If you are traveling up by car, maybe the best thing is to leave such items in your car, in the nearby carpark.  On the other hand, prominent signs throughout the car park warn you not to leave valuables in your cars.

So you can't take them with you, and you can't leave them behind.

As a happy aside, Boeing don't search their tour participants or put you through a metal detector, so if you realize you accidentally forgot to leave your phone or something behind, your secret is probably safe, just so long as your phone doesn't start ringing in the middle of the tour.

The Future of Flight building has two gift shops (one selling aviation themed and Boeing branded things, the other selling a broader range of regional gifts and travel souvenirs), a cafeteria, and an exhibition area.

The main exhibition area at Boeing's Future of Flight


The exhibition area seeks to mask its emptiness by creating the impression of a runway which is then kept clear, notionally for planes to come in and land.

There are some 'propaganda' type exhibits by Boeing and some of its suppliers, and a ride which you pay extra for, but very little else.

There are profiles of the main commercial jets currently sold by Boeing and Airbus.  The descriptions are fairly even-handed.  I was amused to note the display for the 787 profile was not working, but the two Airbus displays were working.


All in all, it was extremely disappointing to see that the world's largest airplane manufacturer, and one of its oldest, had such an extreme paucity of exhibits and materials to present to its paying visitors.

The main reason most of us will go there however is to go on the Factory Tour.  I'd like to show you some photographs of that, but Boeing doesn't allow any photography on the tour.

Suffice it to say the tour starts off with a 6 minute film presentation at the Future of Flight building.  You then travel by bus to the main assembly building, about ten minutes away.  You then go inside two of the bays of this enormous building, and get to see some of the stages of the assembly of 747s, 777s and 787s.

The 777 assembly line is interesting.  It and the 737 assembly line are moving assembly lines.  The planes slowly move from one end of the building (where they start their life as component pieces) to the other end, and as they are inching forward (quite literally - the 777 line moves at a speed of 1.6"/minute) they are slowly being built.  It is a bit like a revolving restaurant, only more so.

There's not really any sense of scale to indicate the enormity of Boeing's main assembly building, but note the tiny dots which are cars and trucks.


It is hard to get a feeling of the size of this building.  To put it into perspective, you could fit all of Disneyland, plus an extra 12 acres too, into the building.

A guide leads each group and gives an interesting, although definitely Boeing-biased and Boeing-centric commentary on the aviation industry in general as well as the specifics of what you see.

The tours last about 90 minutes (my most recent tour was 98 minutes), and after visiting two parts of the assembly building, you are driven back to the 'Future of Flight' visitor center, where the tour concludes by readmitting you back into the building, in the far end of the gift shop.

A Fascinating Revelation

People are getting 'bigger' - you probably know this already, and possibly even from - oooops - personal experience!

On the other hand, airline seats are not growing apace, and so what may have once been an adequately wide seat now definitely seems much too small.  And a criticism of the Boeing narrow-body plane design is that it has been unchanged from its first form in the 1950s all the way through to now, almost 60 years later.  We have got wider, but the planes have not.

But, did you know that in some planes, the seating has actually got narrower?  I was surprised to see a cross-section cutaway of a 747 which showed eight coach seats across on the main deck (two seats, an aisle, a center block of four, another aisle and then two more seats).  I asked the guide who confirmed that originally 747s were configured with eight seats across.

As you probably know, these days all 747s have ten abreast seats (3-4-3) - a 25% increase in seating across the same width of cabin.

So it isn't just us who are getting bigger.  It seems that, at least in the case of the 747, the seats truly are getting smaller!

Note that - in fairness to Boeing - it is the individual airlines who decide how many seats to put in their planes, not Boeing itself. 

Getting There

The Future of Flight building where the tours start from and finish at is located at 8415 Paine Field Blvd, Mukilteo, WA 98275.  It is very well signposted and easy to find - basically take exit 189 off I-5 and head west, following the signs for a couple of miles to where you turn left onto 84th St SW and then left into the car park.

Free car parking is available on site.

If you don't have a car, the easiest way to get there from Seattle would be to take a tour with Tours Northwest, which will collect you from your hotel and return you back there.

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Originally published 25 March 2011, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
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