Vought Aircraft, which builds the rear fuselage of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in a new assembly plant in Charleston, S.C., is slowing the facility almost to a standstill, and its production lines will likely remain largely idle into next year.
Vought Aircraft, which builds the rear fuselage of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner in a new assembly plant in Charleston, S.C., is slowing the plant almost to a standstill, and its production lines will likely remain largely idle into next year.
About 170 Vought workers and about 20 contract workers in Charleston will be temporarily laid off Thursday. Only 30 to 40 production workers will remain at the plant, along with some 150 manufacturing engineers, planners and other salaried staff.
That’s down from about 325 Vought employees and 300 contractors this past summer. Most employees in Charleston had completed a year or so working on the airplane.
“It feels like we are tearing apart our work force,” Joy Romero, Vought’s vice president for the 787 program and head of the Charleston facility, said in an interview. “Our employees were starting to get the learning curve going. We were starting to make progress.
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“I really feel bad we are doing this at this time of the season,” she added.
Romero said the temporary shutdown was forced by the 58-day Machinist strike, which stopped Dreamliner final assembly in Everett for two months before recently ending.
“Boeing cannot simply ‘turn the switch on’ and be back up to speed instantaneously. It will take them time to ramp back up,” Romero told employees in a memo Monday. “Obviously, Boeing cannot absorb our 787 fuselage sections beyond the capacity of their own assembly line — which has not been moving.”
On Oct. 24, Vought stopped fabricating more of the carbon-fiber composite shells of the rear-fuselage sections, which had backed up inside the factory as far as Dreamliner No. 19. It also cut overtime and let go hundreds of temporary contractors who had been working to help catch up on previous program delays.
Now, Vought will also stop most assembly and systems-installation work.
“Up to now, we have … continued to work on our fuselage sections, getting them ready for delivery to Boeing,” wrote Romero. “Now we must extend our temporary shutdown to include most of our assembly operations.”
Romero said the small team of production workers left will split into three teams.
Two will install engineering changes on the rear fuselages of airplanes 5 and 6, the next two to be shipped to Everett when the final-assembly operation there gets unclogged.
The third team will remove and reinstall the fasteners on the fuselages for airplanes 5 through 11 that Boeing recently discovered had been done incorrectly.
How long the Charleston factory will be idled is unclear, but it’s likely to be next year before most workers will return.
Romero said she won’t know for sure until she gets a revised 787 schedule from Boeing.
“Were going to have to bring people back in phases,” said Romero.
“It could be a few weeks. It could be a few months. But from the perspective of building (fuselage) barrels, it will be several months.”
She said Boeing had told her to expect a new schedule within 30 days after the strike ended. But she said she’s hopeful it will come within the next 10 days.
In Vought’s third-quarter earnings teleconference Monday, Chief Executive Elmer Doty said that due to the stalled production, about half of the 900 or so Vought staff assigned to the 787 program have been either temporarily laid off or redeployed.
Other than Charleston, most of Vought’s 787 program staff — including engineers and support staff — are in Dallas. About 80 of those are being redeployed this week to other Vought programs.
At the other 787 sites around the world, the major partners likewise stopped baking the large composite plastic airframe sections some time ago and have been slowing installation work on the sections already complete.
In Wichita, Kan., Spirit AeroSystems, which makes the plane’s nose section, put employees on shortened workweeks.
At the Global Aeronautica (GA) plant adjacent to the Vought plant in Charleston, there is still plenty of work.
Partners in Italy and Japan have delivered mid-fuselage sections to GA for airplanes as far as Dreamliner No. 9, with only the first four completed and sent to Everett for final assembly.
Romero is concerned about the layoffs’ impact on the morale of her work force, which is so new to the airplane business.
“I’ve been telling my folks that we have at least 900 of these (Dreamliners) to build and I believe that we are going to build thousands of them. This can be a career for them and for their children,” said Romero.
“We will get through all this and it will become a well-oiled airplane program.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com