Boeing SC shifts message on North Charleston production goals

A lineup of South Carolina-made 787s are shown on the flight line last year in North Charleston. The local Boeing plant expects to be making at least three of the jets a month by mid-2014. Buy this photo

Ever since I started reporting on Boeing Co. for The Post and Courier almost two years ago, the company has said its North Charleston final assembly factory would be producing three 787 Dreamliners per month by the end of 2013.

That stated goal has been etched in my brain as thoroughly as the jet’s fuel efficiency and its technical difficulties.

So it came as a surprise earlier this month when Boeing South Carolina’s second-in-command told me the local final assembly plant would not reach that rate this year. Willy Geary said that wouldn’t happen until next year, “by first quarter roughly.”

About a week later, the plant’s spokeswoman told a Reuters reporter the new time frame for reaching three per month was actually mid-2014.

I didn’t get the opportunity to ask Boeing CEO Jim McNerney why the timeline had shifted during the media’s portion of Wednesday morning’s earnings teleconference, so I asked Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger that afternoon. I was expecting something about the still-green workforce taking longer to come down the learning curve, when what to my wondering eyes did appear this explanation.

“I think that if anyone was under the impression that Boeing South Carolina would be at three per month by the end of this year they didn’t understand what we’ve been saying about the surge line in Everett helping us to meet the program-level rate as our facility comes up in rate,” Eslinger said in an email, referring to a temporary 787 assembly facility near Seattle. “That’s been our message for a long time now.”

Really? I thought to myself. Had I somehow been dreaming these past couple of years instead of tracking the Dreamliner and its production goals? No, I hadn’t, as a few quick Internet searches confirmed.

Not only had I included that “3/month by the end of 2013” language in numerous articles, but so had Boeing beat reporters from The Seattle Times, Bloomberg, Reuters and Aviation Week, just to name a few. Financial analysts who visited the North Charleston factory this spring also cited the same time-stamped production goal in their reports to investors.

Boeing itself had included that plan explicitly in multiple official public statements.

“Boeing South Carolina will increase final assembly production to three 787s per month by the end of 2013,” the company declared less than a year ago, when the plant delivered its first locally made jet to Air India.

Eslinger elaborated Friday about why the company didn’t update the figure for the South Carolina plant before the question was raised.

“The reason we haven’t corrected it is that technically ... airplane program schedules are just extremely complex and dynamic,” she said.

Also, Eslinger said, Boeing is more focused on the aggregate 787 production goal than those for any of the individual factories.

“The bottom line is that the program rate has not changed from 10 per month,” she said. “That guidance hasn’t changed.”

Coda

Perhaps fittingly, this is my last column for The Post and Courier. As I depart for Brooklyn, I thank everyone for reading and for writing and talking to me. It’s been fun. Godspeed, Charleston.

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