Soarin' in Seattle

Future of Flight museum puts visitors in the pilot’s seat

By: Marty Wentzel

Superlatives always impress my family, so they perked right up when I told them we were going to visit the world’s largest building by volume. Better yet, it’s the only place in North America where the public can tour a commercial airline assembly plant, whose walls boast the biggest digital image ever made.

Our destination was the Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour, and the hype didn’t let us down.

Thirty miles north of Seattle, the Boeing plant manufactures many of the world’s airplanes. Curious travelers have toured it for decades, but since the adjacent $23.5 million Future of Flight Aviation Center opened to the public in December 2005, close to 200,000 people have visited the attraction.

“The addition of the museum has made a big impact on our tour numbers,” said Future of Flight marketing director Sandy Ward. “Since the airline industry is constantly changing and coming up with new products, we’ll continue to refresh the visitor experience by incorporating what’s new into the museum, making it good for repeat guests.”

The 73,000-square-foot museum is a lofty light-filled space featuring hands-on exhibits, videos, graphics and interactive stations. My daughter made a beeline for the design-your-own-plane kiosks, customizing an aircraft from its wingspan and fuel capacity to its logo and color. After testing the plane digitally, we picked up a souvenir print of her creation in the gift shop.

Wearing 3-D glasses, we watched a movie about the making of a plane, then climbed into a real cockpit and pretended we were pilots. Another station explored the world of in-flight entertainment, with games, movies, music and information at our fingertips. For an extra fee, clients can climb aboard the XJ5 Flight Simulator, a rocking and rolling virtual ride that makes them feel like they’re soaring at supersonic speeds like a top gun.

As passengers, clients easily lose sight of an airplane’s size. In the museum, however, they can walk up to various components of a carrier and get a sense of its magnitude. We marveled over the sheer mass of a real 747 tail, four stories tall, and came face to face with one of the world’s largest jet engines, 14,700 pounds and 16 feet long.

Clearly, Boeing is excited about its newest product, the 787 Dreamliner, which promises to revolutionize air travel when it enters service in 2008. We got a sneak preview of the 787’s interior a life-size model where we learned that the plane provides passengers with larger windows and a smoother ride. Officials call it a green machine, because it enjoys 20 percent more fuel efficiency while producing 20 percent fewer emissions. Thanks to the strength of the 787’s composite materials, Boeing can set its cabin pressure to a lower altitude, which increases the humidity during flight and reduces passenger jet lag.

When it came time for our tour of the Boeing factory, we watched a fast-motion movie that whisked us through the five-month airplane construction process in about five minutes. Next, a bus shuttled us over to the plant, where we walked through a long tunnel and rode an elevator up to catwalks high above the assembly floor. Our guide pointed out the different stations through which a plane goes during construction, and showed us the crane system 90 feet above the floor, used for moving wings and fuselages.

“Agents and their clients rely so heavily on air travel, so it’s only natural that they’d want to learn more about the airplanes they fly in,” said Ward. “This is the place where those planes were born.”

I’ve driven by the Boeing factory many times, but our vantage point on the indoor catwalk gave me a new appreciation for the building’s size, and for the massive job that takes place inside of it. Under one roof, its 98.3 acres could hold all of Disneyland and 12 acres of parking to boot. Employees get from one place to another on bicycles and golf carts. Each hangar door measures nearly the size of a football field. Since the superlatives don’t begin to do it justice, your clients will just have to see it in person to believe it.

The Details

Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour

Open daily from 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., with tours on the hour from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Rates are $15 per adult, $8 per child ages 6-15 and free for kids under 6. Children must stand at least 4 feet tall to go on the tour.

By calling the attraction or visiting its Web site, travel agents can establish a Future of Flight account that lets them pre-sell the attraction and print out clients’ tickets before the trip.
Commission: 8-10 percent