Boeing officials are considering plans for a medium-range commercial jet to compete with Airbus, and the company’s North Charleston campus — with its large expansion capability — is being mentioned as a possible site for final assembly of the new aircraft.
Wherever production goes, if the plane actually gets built, a decision likely won’t be made for years.
“It’s far too soon to speculate on where such an airplane might be built,” said Rob Gross, a spokesman for Boeing South Carolina. “Our focus right now is on understanding what our airline customers’ requirements are in terms of size, range and timing. We’re still evaluating the best low-risk solutions around technologies and market needs.”
Gross said “the middle of the next decade is when we expect to address new requirements based on customer needs.”
John Wojick, Boeing’s senior vice president of global sales and marketing, told The Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Times this past week that the company is studying a replacement for its single-aisle 757 model, which was last delivered to airlines in 2005.
Boeing is considering a plane that would carry between 220 and 280 passengers up to 5,000 nautical miles — something about a third bigger than the largest 737 but smaller than the 787 Dreamliner, which is Boeing’s smallest wide-body plane.
Wojick’s comments show Boeing has reversed its thinking about the need for a new midsize product since the start of this year, when Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, called the market for such a plane “frankly a little bit laughable.”
Tinseth’s comments came as Airbus formally launched its A321neo — currently the longest-range single-aisle airplane at 4,000 nautical miles. Airbus has received 811 orders for the jet. The brisk sales have Boeing rethinking its position.
“A year ago, we weren’t convinced the market was large enough to be of that much interest,” Wojick told The Seattle Times headed into this week’s Paris Air Show. “What we’ve determined over the past year is that it’s larger than we thought.”
A new plane would be the first for Boeing since it started production of the Dreamliner in 2007. Boeing now builds the 787 in North Charleston and Everett, Wash. — both mentioned in The Seattle Times as possible sites for production of a new plane.
Boeing’s North Charleston campus could have the edge because the company has a long-term lease, with an option to buy, about 470 acres of land adjacent to the existing Dreamliner facility.
Boeing is building a two-bay paint facility on some of that property but would have plenty of land left for a new production plant if needed.
Plans submitted in December 2013 to the Army Corps of Engineers show another paint facility, extended flight line, 3.4 million square feet of manufacturing space and 400,000 square feet of office space on the additional land.
Boeing officials have stressed there are no definite plans for the site other than a parking lot and the paint facility that’s well underway.
Boeing last year had to tear down office buildings at its Everett site to make room for a new manufacturing facility for the 777X airplane, scheduled to start production next in 2017.
However, there could be capacity in existing Everett facilities as the 747 and 777 lines wind down production.
Aerospace analyst Scott Hamilton said the prospect of a new Boeing jet “presents opportunities all around the U.S. and potential anguish for Washington State and Boeing’s local unions.”
Hamilton, in his Leeham News and Commentary newsletter, said Everett likely won’t have enough room for a new production line but added that North Charleston “has more land there than it needs, a lot more.”
Whether North Charleston gets a new plane could come down to whether the International Association of Machinists union is successful in organizing Boeing South Carolina workers.
The IAM withdrew its petition for a union vote in April, but it has said it will try again, possibly before the end of this year. Hamilton said the union’s success is unlikely, but “Boeing surely wouldn’t want to dramatically expand to another unionized facility.”
Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_