State's next challenge: Land the 777X and 787-10
Workforce concerns and factory space in Everett could be obstacles
But will Everett, or even the state, be where Boeing builds the 777X, the next generation of that wildly successful widebody? Or will workers here assemble the 787-10, the stretched version of the Dreamliner? What happens when Boeing comes out with an entirely new airplane?
"Whatever Boeing decides, we want them to keep the 777 -- and any other future aircraft manufacturing -- right here in Washington," Gov. Chris Gregoire has said of the future of the state's aerospace industry.
How important are the opportunities on the horizon for that industry?
"For Snohomish County, losing the 777X is a big threat," said John Monroe, chief operating officer of Economic Alliance of Snohomish County.
Built in Everett, the 777 has proven popular with the world's airlines. Boeing celebrated the 1,000th 777 jet delivery earlier this month. And the 777 had its best sales year yet in 2011, more than 20 years after the twin-aisle aircraft was first offered to customers.
Analysts and airline executives already are salivating over what tidbits Boeing has revealed about the 777X, including new engines and a composite wing. Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Jim Albaugh has said that the company thinks a 777X could be "significantly more efficient" than the existing airplane.
Monroe, a former 777 executive, worries about whether Washington has a workforce sufficiently skilled to handle the composite wings that Boeing is discussing -- despite recent efforts to shore up state higher education and workforce training.
"If it's just using mature technology, that's one thing," he said. But "do we have the skills to build large composite structures here?"
Also of concern to Monroe: factory space in Everett. Boeing is increasing production on all models, bumping up the pace on the present-day 777 to 8.3 aircraft per month early next year. That's a higher rate than many Boeing officials ever envisioned for the jet's designated space inside the Everett factory at Paine Field.
Rogers Weed, director of the state Commerce Department, doesn't share Monroe's concern over the 777.
"I'm sure the 777 will be here eventually," he said.
Weed thinks the labor agreement between Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) should help make the state's case for keeping 777X work in Washington, as will investments the state is making in workforce training.
As for the 787-10, Boeing already has a second final assembly line in South Carolina, in addition to the original 787 line and a "surge" line in Everett. Some analysts have suggested that Boeing could shift Dreamliner work to San Antonio, Texas, where the company has employees fixing and finishing some of the early-built 787s.
There are advantages to having multiple jet-production locations, analyst Michel Merluzeau, of G2 Solutions, recently told aerospace suppliers at a summit in Seattle. The analyst acknowledged the theory might not be a popular one in Washington. Still, Merluzeau isn't comfortable with "the extreme concentration of physical assets in the Puget Sound region."
It's not a new concern among industry watchers. Leeham Co. analyst Scott Hamilton raised it when a tsunami in Japan last year disrupted production by Toyota.
Alex Pietsch will begin to ferret out the state's next opportunities in aerospace when he starts his job as the state's new aerospace director this week.
"I've heard the argument for Boeing spreading work" to other locations, "but we need to make the case for Washington," he said.
And just as Boeing isn't required to keep commercial airplanes work in Washington, the state doesn't have to pin all its hopes on the company that has been building airplanes in Washington since 1916.
There are other opportunities in aerospace, and leaders like Pietsch, Monroe and Weed all agree Washington needs to pursue them.
"I'm interested in diversifying beyond airplanes," Pietsch said.
That means looking at aviation biofuels, unmanned aerial vehicles and space applications.
Even within the commercial airplane industry, Washington could diversify, Weed said. Last summer, the state Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee signed a tentative agreement with Lufthansa for training mechanics for jet maintenance, repair and overhaul work. Snohomish County already is home to a major provider of such services, ATS.
"We need to look at the life cycle of airplanes," Monroe said. "Those are service demands (and jobs) that will never disappear."
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