North Charleston “looks more and more promising” as the production site for Boeing’s new version of its 777 long-range jet, according to industry officials briefed on the company’s plans.
The unnamed sources in a story published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal said the Chicago-based aerospace giant is now evaulating the Boeing South Carolina campus for both final assembly of the 777X and to build the jet’s new carbon-fiber composite wings.
Analysts have expected the plane-making plant at Charleston International Airport to play a role in the 777X when the plane goes into production around 2017 or 2018, but that final assembly would be done at Boeing’s larger facility in Everett, Wash. The site is now in the mix as a possible production plant.
The plane is expected to start flying around 2020.
“We are studying our options,” a Boeing spokesman told the newspaper. “777X production system decisions will be addressed at the appropriate time.”
Boeing is expected to formally launch the 777X program at the Dubai Air Show in November.
A decision on where to locate the final assembly and wing fabrication for the 777X, a new version of the 777 wide-body passenger jet now built in Washington state, could be made by the end of the year, Boeing South Carolina Vice President and General Manager Jack Jones said earlier this month during a luncheon in Charleston.
Boeing, which employs 6,100 workers locally, is nearing the close of a deal with Charleston County Aviation Authority to buy 267 acres for $13.8 million to expand its local footprint. Boeing currently leases about 240 acres at the airport.
The airplane maker has not announced its intentions for the property it is buying, but it’s not expected to sit on it.
“They are not doing that for conservation purposes,” aviation analyst Scott Hamilton said Tuesday.
The land deal should close within the next month or so after it was first published in the Federal Register last week, a 30-day requirement by the Federal Aviation Administration. The posting would have occurred earlier, but it was caught in the federal government’s partial shutdown in early October.
Hamilton said Boeing routinely evaluates all options, adding that it’s not surprising North Charleston is included.
“The land acquisition is for long-term strategic purposes that could include a 777X,” he said. “Boeing is extremely adept at playing off one state against another for incentives.”
Washington state is in a fever pitch to keep the new production line there, but South Carolina could be putting together its own set of incentives to counter the offer, Hamilton said.
He said Washington is the more likely site for production of the new version of an existing plane while South Carolina is better suited for a completely new aircraft.
As part of the airport land deal, an announcement on a 23-acre parcel in North Charleston is expected once the Federal Register posting is completed. The tract currently houses the S.C. Research Authority building, which is moving to Summerville.
Boeing officials have not said what the property will be used for, but one possibility is that a paint facility will be built on the site so Boeing won’t have to fly its South Carolina-made planes to Texas for the final coatings before delivering them.
“That would make sense,” Hamilton said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.