“Will the last person leaving Seattle — Turn out the lights.”
— A billboard erected in Seattle near Sea-Tac International Airport in 1971 by two real estate agents, following the Boeing Co.’s layoffs of more than 60,000 employees in the Puget Sound region.
In the years between then and now, the population of the greater Puget Sound region has grown from 1.5 million people to more than 4.2 million. Needless to say: The lights stayed on.
Still, for Boeing workers and residents alike in Everett and other cities within Snohomish County and the Puget Sound region, the image of that billboard erected nearly 50 years ago sticks in the mind, following the official announcement Thursday morning that Boeing has decided to move one of its most technologically advanced lines of jetliners — the 787 Dreamliner — out of the Everett plant from which it first rolled in 2007.
Production is expected to be phased out over the next nine months, with the potential loss of 900 to 1,000 jobs in Everett.
There are legitimate reasons for Boeing’s decision to consolidate the 787 line, closing its 787 operation in Everett and moving all production to the plant it opened in North Charleston, South Carolina in 2009.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit airlines hard, with air travel down nearly 70 percent from a year ago. Fewer air passengers mean fewer airlines ordering jets and delaying if not canceling delivery of those they had ordered. On the same day as Boeing’s announcement, American Airlines and United Airlines said they planned to furlough some 32,000 employees after Congressional lawmakers and the White House couldn’t come to terms on a new pandemic relief package that would allow them to continue to pay workers in the interim.
So, Boeing will consolidate and economize to see it through the pandemic.
North Charleston got the nod for consolidation, Boeing officials explained, because the 787’s carbon-fiber fuselage sections are fabricated there and can be rolled to the assembly floor rather than hauled across country on the modified 747 “Dreamlifter,” including sections for the 787-10, which don’t fit even in the humpbacked 747.
But those explanations don’t fully shake suspicions.
Beyond those basic considerations Boeing isn’t likely to share the cost-benefit calculus it used to make this decision. Not with officials in Washington state. Not with employee unions. And not with its employees.
Which has left many in the region with a range of reactions, from near anger to grudging resignation.
Gov. Jay Inslee warned “Boeing would be turning its back on the finest workers and the best place in the world to build airplanes,” and that the state might take “a hard look at the company’s favorable tax treatment.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-2nd District: “Boeing’s decision to pull its 787 production out of Washington state is shortsighted and misplaced. … The strength of the Pacific Northwest’s aviation and aerospace industry includes the region’s strong education system, trained workforce, robust supply chain, extensive manufacturing experience and overall quality of life.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.: “While these are difficult times, it would be absolutely inexcusable for Boeing to turn its back completely on the skilled and dedicated workers that have helped make the company so successful and who continue to make our state the best place in the nation for innovation and manufacturing.”
Most fault a financial analysis that may not have fully assessed the value of the workforce and infrastructure available in Everett and throughout Washington state, giving preference to South Carolina’s nonunion workforce.
An emphasis on short-term gain over long-term health seemed to get greater weight in Boeing’s eye, a conclusion that should not escape the notice of Boeing shareholders, among others. Consider, most recently, the botched handling — by Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration — of the slapdash review of software, related systems and training regimen for the 737 Max, which led to two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 when crews lost control of the planes. When the Renton-built Max will return to service remains an uncertainty.
Among the officials’ justifiable reactions was a statement that also found faith in the region’s resilience: “Regardless of where Boeing chooses to locate any of its product lines,” said Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, “Everett remains a world class aviation and aerospace manufacturing hub.”
It does. And with or without the 787, Everett, Snohomish County and the state should continue their efforts — and frequent review of those efforts — to maintain and expand upon the well-educated and highly capable unionized workforce and the supportive infrastructure that grew around the Everett plant first built for the venerable 747 program.
There’s one pot-sweetener we’d suggest that could help the region secure not only the potential return of the 787 line but other future lines of Boeing airliners: Local officials in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties now sitting on the board of Sound Transit, must keep to the current schedule for the arrival by 2036 of the Link light rail system to Paine Field and its aerospace manufacturing center. Accelerating that arrival would be all the better.
The region’s traffic congestion along its major interstates and highways has long been a sore point with the region’s employers, including Boeing. Completing the “spines” of the system among Everett, Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue seems key to facilitating the strength for all the region’s employers and the quality of life of its residents.
The loss of 1,000 jobs in Everett will sting, especially for an economy already reeling from the pandemic. But a strong foundation remains from which many employers can continue to benefit and residents can count on.
Recall what followed after that billboard went up: Fifty years ago the lights didn’t go out in the Puget Sound region. As aerospace manufacturing grew and strengthened, the region’s economy thrived and — more importantly — diversified and a steady growth in population continued.
The billboard that ought to go up — visible as one drives past Boeing’s Everett plant — should borrow not from the real estate agents but from a motel chain: “Boeing, We’ll Leave the Light On For You. And For Others.”