Boeing recaps action-packed year in North Charleston, looks ahead to busier year

Boeing South Carolina associates work on the final assembly of an Air India and United Airlines 787 Dreamliner, in the final assembly building Thursday. Buy this photo

Boeing brushed a broad stroke across the Lowcountry this past year, and it's going be a lot more colorful in 2014.

Boeing South Carolina timeline 2013

January

FAA grounds all 787 Dreamliner flights after battery fires on two planes.

March

New IT Centers for Excellence announced.

April

787 production flights resumed; 2,000 more jobs announced and another $1 billion in investments through 2020.

May

New Engineering Design Center announced; new propulsion plant to design and assemble 737 MAX engine inlet components announced; first 787-9 aft and mid-fuselage sections delivered to Everett, Wash., from North Charleston.

September

Named Workplace in Diversity Award Winner

October

New Engineering Design Center announced for 787 aftbody.

November

Ground broke on new propulsion plant.

December

New Manufacturing Technology Center to bring up to 400 jobs; new paint facility for 787 coming; new fire station on the way; company leases 468 additional acres for future growth.

Source: Boeing South Carolina

That's the picture Boeing South Carolina's top executive Jack Jones painted during a recap Thursday of the accomplishments over the past 12 months and a sneak peek of the upcoming year at the ever-changing, airplane-making operation in North Charleston.

In a year bookended with the promise of thousands of new jobs and a tripling of its footprint for future expansion, Boeing is poised to stamp its mark on the Lowcountry for decades to come.

In about a year from now, a larger version of the 787 Dreamliner should be rolling off the North Charleston production line.

The stretch 787-9 model, now exclusively assembled near Seattle, will begin production at Boeing South Carolina's existing factory in the fall of 2014, said Jones, vice president and general manager of the local plane-making plant.

Boeing has said its assembly line at Charleston International Airport is set up to build the 787-9. It had not officially confirmed when production would begin until Thursday.

The longer plane has the original 787-8 beat by 20 feet and can carry up to 290 passengers, or 40 more than the base model. It also has more cargo capacity.

The company has about 400 firm orders for the plane, which is still in the flight-testing phase. The first jet is scheduled to be delivered to Air New Zealand in mid-2014.

Jones also addressed the 787-10, the newest and longest version of the Dreamliner. He expects a decision about where to assemble that aircraft in the first quarter of 2014.

"That's still under consideration," he said.

Looking ahead


Aviation analyst Saj Ahmad with StrategicAero Research of England said the 787-9 announcement reinforces his belief that all 787 production will move to North Charleston.

"This is just the start of the dumbing down of the Everett 787 story and the boost to Charleston to take all 787 work," Ahmad said. "The 787-10 is a great natural fit there. I'd be surprised to see it built anywhere other than in South Carolina."

Ahmad based his assessment on the fact that the fuselage of the 787-10, the biggest plane in the 787 series, will be too big to fit on the Dreamlifter, which ferries completed parts for the 787-9 to Everett, Wash., for final assembly.

With some modifications, Jones said it's possible it could fit.

Ahmad said the decision to offer 787-9 production work in North Charleston "lessens the dependency on one site and drives efficiencies and cost savings through increased production capability. Charleston is in it for the long term, and the recent land procurement reinforces everything."

Boeing now makes seven 787s a month at its factories in North Charleston and Everett combined. Its first plane, as part of its goal to make 10 787s a month, rolled into the assembly line in November, Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said.

But the company has more ambitious goals down the road. It projects to build 12 a month by 2016, and 14 a month by 2019.

Whether all of those will be built in North Charleston remains to be seen.

Earlier this year, Boeing committed to invest another $1 billion and add another 2,000 jobs in South Carolina by 2020 in exchange for $120 million from the state.

Most of that money will go toward buying and preparing 468 acres of newly acquired land for future expansions, Jones said.

"We don't make a commitment of an additional $1 billion ... and 2,000 more people unless we're committed to the region," he said.

At the same time, Jones said, the company hasn't made any decisions about how it will develop the newly secured property next to its airport campus.

"It gives us a lot of flexibility," he said.

Jones stressed that the aerospace giant isn't keeping a "secret" about its intentions for the site.

"We don't have any plan," he said. "All we have is the land. There is no plan on the side."

A wetlands mitigation plan for the Boeing expansion zone in the newly acquired land will be announced after the holidays.

A lot of conceptual buildings will show up on the plan, but that's all they will be, Eslinger said.

"We had to detail a what-if scenario and all kinds of buildings," she said. "They will be concept buildings. That's all."

777X


Jones also said he wasn't able to comment about the Chicago-based company's high-profile search for a place to build the new 777X passenger jet.

Boeing is whittling down proposals from 54 sites in 22 states this week. A final site selection won't be made until after the new year.

"They may not get it," Ahmad said of North Charleston, "but snaring all 787 work is a bloody good achievement by any standard. The (International Association of Machinists) union in Everett will surely be scratching their heads at how badly they have misjudged Boeing management - and in my view it's too late for them to do anything about it now. With a new Boeing management change too - unions holding Boeing to ransom is going to be a thing of the past."

Jones also dismissed news reports, mostly out of Washington state, he said, that have described the North Charleston plant as falling behind on the 787 production schedule. "That is not true," he said. "We are tracking exactly where we want for the plan."

Boeing South Carolina employs about 6,600 workers, and one of the company's greatest challenges, Jones said, since it started in 2009, is getting experienced workers.

He challenged the state's education system to produce more graduates with proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math. "They need to step up their game," Jones said.

High school graduates with a STEM background can be hired at Boeing, Jones said. They must go through an eight-week training course at Trident Technical College and then another four weeks with a mentor on site to demonstrate proficiency.

The turnover rate of employees in North Charleston is 6 to 8 percent while in Puget Sound it's about 10 percent, Jones said. The difference, he said, is that the Seattle area offers other opportunities in similar trades, allowing workers to jump around more. Another reason for the lower turnover rate at Boeing South Carolina, he said, is because when employees tell people where they work, people are impressed.

"People consider it a prestige job," Jones said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or John P. McDermott at 937-5572.

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