Where will Boeing build the 777X?

EVERETT — It wouldn’t make sense to build the next generation of the Boeing 777 anywhere but here at Paine Field, where 777s have been assembled since 1994.

That’s the overriding sentiment of aviation analysts, Washington politicians and labor leaders.

Even Boeing CEO Jim McNerney recently called Everett an “attractive place” for building the updated twin-aisle aircraft.

But McNerney didn’t say Boeing will locate the program here. Nor did Boeing officials reveal the location of 777X assembly when the company’s board last week gave the commercial airplanes sales team the go-ahead to start offering it to airlines.

Decisions about a supply chain and where a plane will be assembled typically are addressed after a jet’s formal launch, the point when Boeing commits to building the aircraft, Boeing spokeswoman Karen Crabtree said Wednesday. The timing of the 777X launch depends on the market’s response during this initial sales phase, she said.

Local officials, however, are upbeat about Everett’s chances for landing the 777X, which will be updated with composite wings and new engines.

“Everett competes very well with any location in the country,” Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said.

Stephanson and a group of local leaders convened by Economic Alliance Snohomish County have been meeting regularly to ensure Boeing’s needs will be met. The group includes representatives from county government, several cities, schools and colleges, banks and other financial institutions, and, of course, the aerospace industry.

“We as a community are doing the things we need to do,” said John Monroe, chief operations officer for the alliance.

Monroe, a Boeing retiree, acknowledges there are factors beyond the group’s control.

Big wing, big factor

For example, the 777X’s carbon-composite wing could be a factor as to where the jet is assembled.

During the company’s earnings call in late April, CEO McNerney gave some insight into Boeing’s thinking on the wing.

“The bigger a composite wing gets, the more efficient it becomes,” he said. “This is a big composite wing.”

If the wing is too big to be transported easily, Boeing likely will manufacture the wing where the 777X is assembled.

Everett workers don’t have experience in fabricating composite parts, like the wing, as do Boeing workers in South Carolina, where some of the 787’s big composites are baked. Besides running a 787 final-assembly line, Boeing workers in North Charleston fabricate composite aft fuselage sections. Boeing could draw on workers in Frederickson in Pierce County for that expertise or send the wing to a site in Utah, which also produced composite sections for the 787.

“If the wings are built in South Carolina or Japan, how do they get those here?” Monroe asked.

It’s unclear whether the wing, which is expected to have folding wingtips, would fit inside Boeing’s fleet of modified 747s, known as Dreamlifters. Boeing uses those aircraft to ferry 787 assemblies around the world.

Room to build

If Boeing picks Everett, the question becomes “what kind of rearranging do they need to do 777X here?” Monroe said.

City of Everett officials have been discussing a variety of plans that would make it possible for Boeing to build the 777X in Everett, Stephanson said. The company has 1.8 million square feet of unused space at the Everett site on the north end of Paine Field.

“We can clearly accommodate another line for the 777X,” Stephanson said.

One option would be for Boeing to add to the east end of the Everett factory. Another would be for Boeing to demolish some older buildings, known as the flat-top buildings, to the north and expand there.

“All systems are go in terms of being able to permit this quickly,” Stephanson said.

Others have speculated about Boeing’s recent purchase of a 600,000-square-foot hangar at Paine Field’s south end that it previously had leased from Aviation Technical Services. Referred to now as the Everett Modification Center, it’s where Boeing has sent early-built 787s to be reworked for delivery. Greg Smith, Boeing chief financial officer, has suggested that work will wrap up at the end of 2015, freeing space in time for 777X work to begin around 2016.

Or, Monroe said, the company could free up space in the factory by moving 747 work to the modification hangar. With waning demand for very large jets, the 747 “is on life support,” local aerospace analyst Scott Hamilton, with Leeham Co., said in an April interview. Boeing announced last month it would slow production of the jumbo jet starting in 2014.

South Carolina?

Boeing’s engineering strength in Everett is in the site’s favor for building the 777X here.

“I just cannot imagine them wanting to start up 777X engineering anywhere else in the world,” said Monroe, a former 777 manager. However, he acknowledged, the company likely will give some engineering work to other locations, such as South Carolina. Boeing’s handling of 737 MAX work might be an indicator. The company on Thursday confirmed it will add 20 engineering positions associated with the 737 MAX in South Carolina.

Boeing recently has made a commitment to South Carolina, pledging to invest $1 billion and create 2,000 more jobs there over the next eight years — in exchange for $120 million in tax incentives. Boeing also bought 320 acres near the North Charleston complex.

Even if 777X work comes to Everett, Monroe and analyst Hamilton believe Boeing is committed to expanding its presence in North Charleston.

“When the day finally comes that they design an all-new 737 or 777, Charleston has a good shot,” Hamilton said.

Boeing’s push to diversify manufacturing locations and its relationship with labor unions here in the Puget Sound area are two factors in which local and state leaders have little say.

“From a business standpoint … it makes sense to not have all your eggs in one basket,” said Hamilton, who pointed to the risk of natural disaster as one of the reasons it makes sense for Boeing to have manufacturing sites elsewhere.

When Boeing was determining in 2009 where to put a second 787 assembly line, the company didn’t convey a wish list for Washington lawmakers to follow. Instead, the company said its decision hinged heavily on reaching a long-term labor contract with members of the local district of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Boeing also was discussing tax incentives with lawmakers in South Carolina at the time and eventually chose North Charleston.

In late 2011, Boeing agreed to keep 737 MAX work in Renton. In turn, the Machinists ratified a contract extension and asked that a federal labor lawsuit against the company be dropped. The National Labor Relations Board had sued at the union’s request over Boeing’s South Carolina decision.

On Friday, Connie Kelliher, Machinists spokeswoman, said Boeing hasn’t approached the union with demands related to the 777X.

“We’re doing everything we can to support Boeing and to make it successful,” she said. “We believe the 777X should be built in Everett.”

Analyst Hamilton considers the area’s skilled workforce one of Everett’s top advantages over other locations. The fact that Boeing builds existing versions of the 777 here also is paramount.

“It would make zero sense to build a derivative airplane anywhere but where the 777 is built,” he said.

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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