Unveiling of new Boeing Dreamliner gives South Carolina an opportunity to shine in national spotlight
More than a few people snickered when Boeing announced it would build a new production plant in a place that had never built an airplane.
Some from Boeing’s birthplace in Washington state scoffed at the skills of Lowcountry laborers. One cartoonist depicted the typical South Carolina worker as a beer-bellied hayseed in overalls who spent his day fixing old lawnmowers with a greasy wrench.
The critics had their fun. But they’re not laughing anymore.
South Carolina showcased its mettle and the talents of its workforce before a global audience Friday as Boeing rolled out its first locally produced Dreamliner in a ceremony filled with pomp and pageantry.
Drums sounded. Horns blew. Fireworks exploded. And after a round of congratulatory speeches, a sleek new airplane emerged from a dark, smoke-shrouded hangar to raucous cheers.
The day put a glowing spotlight on the Palmetto State, showing critics that local workers could not only build a plane, they could do it well, on time and on budget.
“They made a lot of fun of us back then, but we have shown them that we can back up what we said about having a quality work force,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey. “This also says to the aeronautic industry and to manufacturers in general: This is a place you should look at.”
Public relations guru Glenn Selig, president of Selig Multimedia and founder of PR NewsChannel in Tampa, Fla., agreed. He said the Dreamliner’s completion represents a huge marketing opportunity for South Carolina because its workers exceeded the expectations of many.
“Those who ridiculed the state when Boeing made its choice did South Carolina a favor,” Selig said. “It lowered expectations almost to the point where there was an expectation of failure. Now, both the state of South Carolina and Boeing can tout the success.”
The accomplishment certainly restores some luster to a state that has seen its image dinged a bit by scandals and repeated turns as the butt of jokes by late-night comics. From its governor disappearing on a Latin American love quest to one of its congressman shouting, “You lie” at the U.S. president, South Carolina has had some image-challenging moments over the past few years.
On Friday, however, it was the state’s chance to shine.
One industry analyst, Howard Rubel of Jefferies & Co., said the plane’s completion shows the world that Boeing’s faith in the Lowcountry was well-placed.
“I think that given the global options Boeing had, the people of South Carolina really rose to the challenge,” he said.
Saj Ahmad is chief analyst at StrategicAero Research, a private aviation consulting firm operating in Europe and the Middle East. Ahmad said he thinks South Carolina could well become one of the country’s largest aerospace manufacturing hubs in the coming years. Boeing would not have invested so much in the area had it not planned on maintaining a long-term presence, and other aerospace companies will likely be drawn here as a result, he said.
While Boeing’s roots go deep in Everett, Wash., it has a spanking new production facility in Charleston and a workforce here that is trained in the latest technologies and processes. Workers here didn’t have to unlearn old ways of doing things to make this new-generation plane, he said.
That bodes well for the plant landing more and more work as Boeing expands its lines, and it could conceivably become the main assembly point for 787s in the future, he said.
“I don’t think South Carolina will be a one-trick pony,” Ahmad said. “I think there is a very real opportunity for Charleston to snare all of the 787 production.”
State officials appear to be taking nothing for granted. Commerce Department chief Bobby Hitt recently announced the creation of an aerospace task force, headed by former Marine fighter pilot and businessman Charlie Farrell, to help South Carolina build its fledgling aviation industry.
Selig, the publicist, said South Carolina should do all it can to take advantage of its moment in the sun. It needs to leverage Friday’s momentum and kick off a nationwide marketing campaign, playing up the Palmetto State as a place where companies can find “dedicated, reliable and over-achieving workers,” he said.
“All the elements are there,” Selig said. “But it’s up to South Carolina to seize the opportunity — and not squander it. Because it would be a mistake to assume that all that will just organically happen.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.