It hadn’t been the plan for Boeing South Carolina’s first Dreamliner deliveries this month to be a pair of planes built in Washington state, so it was with excitement that the North Charleston plant’s top executive announced a return to the original script Wednesday.
“The employees of South Carolina are very close to delivering our very first 787 to Air India,” Jack Jones announced at the S.C. International Trade Conference on the Isle of Palms. “We’re hoping to do that next week.”
Speaking after the event, Jones wouldn’t offer a delivery date because the pick-up schedule is ultimately up to Air India.
“I can’t tell you yet because we haven’t locked in on that,” Jones said, insisting he’s “not hiding anything” and noting that previously scheduled deliveries to Air India have been postponed.
“But the airplane is ticketed. The certificate of airworthiness has been signed by the FAA, which means from an airplane perspective, it’s ready to go.”
The Boeing South Carolina vice president and general manager also couldn’t guarantee that there would be the kind of celebration the Lowcountry has long expected for the handover of the first native Dreamliner.
Again, it depends on government-owned Air India, which hasn’t responded to requests for comment since early July.
“We’re not sure just how big of an event yet because we’re working with the airline customer to determine who’s coming,” he said, referring to Indian government ministers and officials. “Whether it’s this (delivery) or not, we’re working on it right now.”
“There will be a special event, we just don’t know when,” he said.
Jones’ comments came a day after the local plant’s second delivery and were part of a morning panel discussion with other local manufacturing executives, including from BMW and Michelin.
On stage and in an interview afterward, Jones addressed a wide range of issues facing Boeing, from the effect of budget cuts on the aerospace company’s defense business to the North Charleston plane-making complex’s planned production-rate increase.
Between two final assembly lines near Seattle and at Charleston International Airport, Boeing is making about five 787s a month now, with plans to double that rate by the end of next year. Jones said his final assembly operation is churning out one plane every month and a half now, so the learning curve will be steep.
The aft- and mid-body factories in North Charleston already are producing fuselage sections at a rate of five planes per month. Jones said the aft-body factory, which Boeing bought from Vought Aircraft Industries, “used to be a hotspot,” but “we’ve worked our way through that.”
Adding to the workload, the aft- and mid-body factories also will begin making fuselage sections for the 787-9 extended Dreamliner early next year.
Jones revealed for the first time Wednesday that those planes, which seat more passengers and fly farther than the 787-8, will undergo final assembly in North Charleston too.
“We won’t be building the -9 in final assembly until probably late 2014,” Jones said Wednesday.
Jones said repeatedly that he is not concerned about the General Electric GEnx engines hanging from every 787 built in South Carolina so far, but whose drive shafts have shown a tendency to crack.
One engine failed during a pre-flight test in North Charleston on July 28, and after two more engines exhibited similar flaws, the National Transportation Safety Board made an urgent call last week for regular inspections of the more than 100 GEnx engines in service.
“We’ve done all the checks and we’re clear and we’re good,” Jones said.
Jones also spoke about the ongoing expansion of Boeing South Carolina’s physical plant, adding 276,000 square feet to the 467,000-square-foot aft-body factory; adding 37,000 square feet to the complex’s component paint building; and fashioning 30,000 square feet of tool-testing lab and office space in the final assembly building.
“It’s like we get done with everything and then we start building something again,” Jones said. “We don’t let anything settle down.”
He said further expansion could be contingent upon having “the infrastructure, not just roads but utilities and sewers, all the things that you need for a campus the size that Boeing is looking at.”
In the meantime, Jones seemed to be flying high about the progress his 6,100-member team has made in the past year.
“Things are starting to move, the factory’s full, exciting time for Boeing,” he said.