Boeing downplays union activity

Visitors view the economy class section of a Boeing 787 operated by All Nippon Airways at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport earlier this month.

Boeing Co. reported better-than-expected earnings with the help of its aircraft business Wednesday while downplaying union activity at its 787 campus in North Charleston.

The aerospace giant made $1 billion in the third quarter on $20 billion in revenue, driven by an uptick in deliveries of commercial airplanes, including the handover this month of the first 787 Dreamliner made in South Carolina.

Boeing released its latest earnings as it continues to increase its aircraft production on the 787 and other planes.

CEO Jim McNerney said Boeing has delivered five Dreamliners this month and 28 for the year, for a total of 31 since the handovers began about a year ago. Feedback from airlines and passengers has been “extremely positive,” he said.

McNerney and Boeing finance chief Greg Smith said the 787 assembly plants in North Charleston and Everett, Wash., are proceeding along their learning curves as expected.

“They’re at different levels of maturity right now, so you can’t you can’t necessarily compare a tail number to a tail number,” Smith said, referring to particular planes coming off the two assembly lines. “But when we all get kind of up to full rate we’ll certainly be able to do that. And there’s a lot of lessons learned coming back and forth between those two operations, and we’re taking full advantage of that.”

The assembly lines have been transitioning from producing 3.5 Dreamliners per month to five per month, a milestone McNerney expects to reach by the end of the year. Boeing hopes to be making 10 jets per month by the end of next year, with about a third of those coming out of North Charleston.

He also addressed the stepped-up organizing effort by Boeing’s biggest union, the machinists, which has been meeting with workers from the North Charleston plant periodically since at least the spring.

Tommy Mayfield, the machinist union’s representative for the Southern region, said last week that “greater than 50” workers have signed up, and that he expects a National Labor Relations Board vote on the unionization question within a year.

McNerney downplayed that possibility.

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“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion obviously,” he said. “We’re committed to working with our employees down in Charleston. I think the relationship between our team there and the management leadership is good.”

“It’s not clear to us they need representation,” McNerney said. “We like dealing directly with our employees. Having said that ... there are many elements of our employee base that are unionized and we work effectively with them as well. But I don’t see the same thing whoever you talked to sees. As a matter of fact I feel great about the relationship between the leadership and the employees there.”

McNerney also reported “steady progress” on the 787-9 stretch Dreamliner, saying the engineering design is “90 percent complete” and that major assembly is under way. The aft- and mid-body factories in North Charleston will begin producing parts for 787-9s next spring, and McNerney said final assembly of the longer model would begin mid next year with first delivery coming in early 2014.

Two of Boeing’s biggest projects on the horizon are a reworked 777 and another Dreamliner derivative, the even longer 787-10.

McNerney said Boeing “has absorbed a lot of development risk over the last decade, but now that we’re coming out of it, we have a suite of technologies that we can harvest ... over the next decade or two.”