Boeing makes it official: Washington state will lose 787 production next year

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A ground crew waits for the rear section of a 747 Dreamlifter to close after delivering parts for the 787 Dreamliner to be assembled at Boeing in Everett on Tuesday afternoon, May 26, 2020. - Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS

Boeing told employees Thursday morning it will consolidate 787 Dreamliner production in South Carolina, abandoning the original final assembly line in Everett.

The formal announcement that Washington state loses the airplane it worked so hard to secure 17 years ago was no surprise, after the news broke Tuesday.

In a message to employees, Seattle-based Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal said the move to consolidate the work in North Charleston, S.C., will be done by “mid-2021, according to our best estimate.”

As he shared the news, Deal acknowledged that “the 787 is the tremendous success it is today thanks to our great teammates in Everett. They helped give birth to an airplane that changed how airlines and passengers want to fly.”

Then he cited the collapse of the airliner business “through the unprecedented global pandemic,” to give Everett employees the bottom line:

“To ensure we can be effective in a market that will be smaller in the near-term … we made a decision earlier this morning to consolidate 787 production in South Carolina after months of detailed and thorough study.”

“This strategy affects many teammates so it was important we took the time to run a rigorous and thoughtful evaluation,” Deal wrote. “For months, teams studied options, engaged all of our stakeholders, including unions, and considered a number of factors including logistics, efficiency and long-term health of our production system.”

“It became clear that consolidating to a single 787 production location in South Carolina will make us more competitive and efficient, better positioning Boeing to weather these challenging times and win new business.”

In a news release later in the morning, Boeing said that its “analysis confirmed the feasibility and efficiency gains created by consolidation.”

A big factor in that analysis was that the aft- and mid-fuselage sections of the Dreamliner are assembled in separate buildings in North Charleston and so can be rolled over on the ground to the final assembly line.

For Everett production, those huge sections have to be airlifted across the continent on Boeing custom-built Dreamlifter cargo planes. And for the largest model of the 787, the 787-10, the mid-fuselage is too long to fit inside the Dreamlifter, with this model built only in South Carolina.

How South Carolina became Boeing

The North Charleston manufacturing site was born out of the mess Boeing made of its global outsourcing plan for the 787 and grew bigger because of management’s antipathy to the strong unions in the Puget Sound region.

In the original 787 plan in 2003, Boeing signed up two outside partners — Alenia of Italy and Vought of Texas — to build the fuselage sections, and those partners chose to build plants in South Carolina, drawn by incentives from the state and its anti-union culture.

But Alenia and Vought proved incapable of producing the plane to the required quality, and in 2009 Boeing was forced to buy them out and take over the work. For the first time, Boeing had an East Coast airplane manufacturing site.

That same year, Boeing decided to build a second 787 final assembly line. Then-CEO Jim McNerney had been enraged by a damaging Machinists strike the previous year. He ignored all pleas to put the second line in Everett and chose to locate it alongside the fuselage assembly plants in South Carolina.

From that point on, Boeing could use North Charleston as leverage against Everett, playing one state off against the other.

“Today’s decision does not change our commitment to Washington state,” Deal told employees Thursday, adding that the 777X airplane built in Everett and the 737 MAX jet family built in Renton “are just as important to the future of our company as the 787.”

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©2020 The Seattle Times