All smiles at Boeing on the 767 line

EVERETT — There was no shortage of smiles and cheers inside the Boeing Co.’s Everett factory the day after the company won a multibillion-dollar Air Force tanker contract.

“I cannot wipe the smile off my face,” said Maureen Dougherty, vice president of the tanker program.

But what Bo

eing workers, company executives and politicians really were celebrating Feb. 25 was the future.

“Let’s hear it for everyone who will retire working on this airplane,” said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., about Boeing’s 767.

Boeing’s win of the Air Force tanker contract will keep the 767 production line up and running in Everett into the next decade. The company will supply 179 767-based tankers, which will replace the Air Force’s aging KC-135 tankers. The contract is worth at least $30 billion, depending on upgrades.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who addressed the crowd over the phone, delivered more good news. After talking with Air Force and Defense Department officials Friday morning, “they’re convinced that Airbus will probably not protest,” Dicks said. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

The parent company of Airbus, EADS had offered the Air Force its larger A330-based tanker, which would have been built in Mobile, Ala. The Air Force has 10 days from Feb. 24 to brief EADS on its decision, and the European company has 10 days after that to protest the award. Therefore, Boeing and its workers could have to wait a few more weeks to find out if their good news will stick.

“It’s the kind of positive news that can turn an economy around,” said Ray Stephanson, Everett’s mayor.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., agreed.

“There is no better economic news than local jobs,” she said.

Boeing has said its tanker will support 11,000 jobs in Washington state, although those won’t all be newly created jobs. Rather, the tanker program will preserve the 767 work force once its commercial orders run out, which could happen in 2013. On the commercial side, Boeing is introducing its mostly composite 787 Dreamliner, which ultimately will replace the 767.

“A lot of us were sweating whether we’d have jobs in a couple years,” said Gary Ottinger, a manufacturing engineer on the 767 program, who joyfully showed off his Team 767 rally towel. “Now, it’s no big deal. We can get my son or daughter in here working.”

Jim Albaugh, president of Boeing’s commercial airplanes division, said the company hired several thousand new employees last year as it ramped up production on its existing jet lines. As it production continues to increase and as the company begins development work on the tanker, “we’re going to hire several thousand employees this year.”

Albaugh and Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney mingled with 767 workers, shaking hands and thanking the employees for what they do. In his former position as head of Boeing’s defense unit, Albaugh has been involved in Boeing’s lengthy battle to win the Air Force tanker contract for much of the last decade.

“In the history of the Boeing Co., there are always a few dates everyone remembers,” he said. Recent dates include Dec. 15, 2009, the first flight of Boeing’s 787, and Feb. 8, 2010, the first flight of the company’s updated 747-8 freighter.

“I think employees will remember Feb. 24, 2011: That’s the day when we won the tanker competition,” Albaugh said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., remembered the day in 2008 when the Air Force’s decision initially went the other way. Political leaders had gathered at Boeing’s Everett plant in February 2008 planning to break out the bubbly but were shocked by the Pentagon’s pick of the EADS tanker instead. This time around, Boeing and its backers seemed prepared for a loss and were happily surprised by the win.

In 2008, Murray said, she pledged, “I won’t give up until we win. That day is today. We won.”

Boeing, with the backing of its friends in Congress, protested EADS’ win in 2008. Ultimately, the Air Force called for a do-over of its tanker contest. Murray credited the perseverance of Boeing officials, its workers and the congressional delegation with Boeing’s win as well as Boeing’s “competitive bid.”

In a rare appearance in Everett, Boeing’s McNerney thanked Washington’s congressional delegation, saying the company couldn’t have landed the tanker contract without their help. McNerney also expressed appreciation not only for Boeing machinists but also union leaders who lobbied for the contract.

“We’ve got to keep coming together like this,” he said.

In response, Tom Wroblewski, president of the local Machinists union, said the tanker win “demonstrates what we can do when we work together.”

Whether the positive feelings between union and company officials carry over into contract talks next year is unclear. In the meantime, Boeing and its workers can savor the moment.

“It just makes me feel about as good as I can feel,” McNerney said.

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