Execs discuss the state of aerospace

The Governor’s Aerospace Summit opened Tuesday at Comcast Arena in Everett and continues Wednesday, with the governor himself delivering the keynote address. The event is sponsored by the Aerospace Futures Alliance of Washington, one of the state’s many industry advocacy groups.

The highlight of the first day was an unusual panel of three executives of publicly traded aerospace companies that represented every stage of the commercial jetliner market: supplier, airplane builder and airline.

The executives were Pat Shanahan, a senior vice president and general manager of airplane programs for Renton-based Boeing Commercial Airplanes; Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air Group, which owns Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air; and Olivier Zarrouati, CEO and chairman of Zodiac Aerospace.

Many of Shanahan’s remarks were, of course, about the billion-dollar question of where Boeing will build the 777X. More on that here.

Shanahan also spoke to the state of the industry (“It’s an incredible market right now”) and waxed philosophical about the implications of the complexity of building airplanes.

Like trees planted by Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser Co., Shanahan said, “aerospace is a renewable industry,” the products of which are built to last 40 or 50 years.

“Looks can be deceiving,” he said. “Right now things are going great.

“But I’m thinking about the business I need to do now” to ensure airplanes are delivered and revenue is collected five and 10 years later — the time between an airline’s initial interest and a plane’s delivery.

Plaisir, France-based Zodiac Aerospace supplies companies like Boeing with assemblies, components and parts, including airplane interiors, seats and evacuation systems. Zodiac employs 26,000 people worldwide — 2,000 of them in Washington. Zarrouati agreed that managing aerospace companies requires insight.

“It’s a very forward-looking industry,” Zarrouati said. “A lot of us are not going to be there,” years from now, “to face the decisions that we make today.”

Tilden said his biggest challenge at Seattle-based Alaska Air Group is addressing the present-day needs of his company’s stakeholders — customers, investors and employees — without jeopardizing the long-term prosperity of the enterprise.

“I’m feeling a lot of pressure from all the constituents,” Tilden said.

Alaska Air Group is the seventh-biggest airline in the U.S., with 13,000 employees, 6,000 of them in Washington. It’s also one of Boeing’s best customers, with 128 Boeing 737s in the fleet.

The airline industry is recovering, Tilden said, after years of turmoil. “A few years ago, 70 percent of seats were flown by bankrupt airlines,” he said. No matter what the item is, “price is very important to us.”

Which is why, of course, Boeing likes to work with suppliers like ElectroImpact of Mukilteo, which Shanahan singled out for praise. “They invest in technology to drive productivity and lower costs,” Shanahan said.

Both American executives mildly complained about the burdens of government regulation, whether it’s environmental rules (Boeing) or airport noise (Alaska). Said Tilden: “That’s the sound of a W-2.”

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