The hard reckoning feared from Boeing’s 2009 decision to build airplanes in South Carolina may be only weeks away.
Respected industry experts think Boeing’s potential consolidation of 787 Dreamliner production lines because of slow sales would likely happen at the company’s site in North Charleston, South Carolina — not Everett.
This outcome would be extremely harmful to Puget Sound’s economy. The Everett plant provides 30,000 jobs. About 10,000 more area workers are employed by Boeing suppliers.
Gov. Jay Inslee should not let this line slip out of state on his watch. His effort has been hard to discern. A spokesperson said Inslee has spoken with Boeing Commercial CEO Stan Deal, and that he and state Commerce Department leaders are having “active and ongoing discussions” with Boeing executives.
“There’s not a lot of actions we can take to sway the decision,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett and chair of the Aviation Subcommittee of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, told a Times reporter.
The decisions that led to this crossroads stretch beyond 2009, perhaps to the 2001 departure of Boeing corporate headquarters. Win or lose the 787 battle, Washington’s leaders must strengthen the region’s vast aerospace assets to last decades. That means creating a stronger college pipeline for high-tech roles at Boeing. About half the membership of Boeing’s engineers and technicians union is 50 or older, aviation-industry expert Scott Hamilton observed.
“The brain drain is already underway, and what’s the state done about that?” Hamilton said to this editorial board.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Boeing’s reputation and finances were in trouble because of the 737 MAX disaster. Two crashes that killed 346 people grounded the entire fleet and reduced sales to a trickle. The pandemic has taken the economic troubles industrywide. Eventually, the market will rebound. But Boeing’s top-shelf safety reputation still must be fully repaired. The direct route to that is by going all-in on quality and bringing production home to Puget Sound.
The South Carolina site can build the largest planes in the 787 line. Its wages are cheaper, and its employees are nonunion. However, North Charleston cannot match the industrial and engineering history that form a shared DNA for Boeing and the Seattle region. Production quality at the North Charleston plant has been spotty compared with Everett. In August, Boeing withdrew eight South Carolina-made Dreamliners from active use because of structural problems. Problems with North Charleston-made 787s go back years. In 2014, Qatar Airways began requiring every 787 it purchased to be an Everett build.
“I think we can make a case that we just really have the talent here to make sure that the planes that come out are top-notch and high-quality,” Snohomish County Executive David Somers said. “I know our labor is a bit more expensive, but you get what you pay for. “
For Boeing and Washington to have a sustainable future together, the relationship needs strengthening. The region’s primacy as an aerospace hub requires continual attention to the infrastructure, from educating the workforce to encouraging supplier network businesses. The 787 crossroads shows the peril of letting another region catch up to our strengths.