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Early landing: Boeing speeds up plan to move all 787 production to SC

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Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun (right) visited the North Charleston campus earlier this year. The company plans to initiate its consolidation of the 787 jet program in South Carolina a few months earlier than predicted. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Boeing Co. is accelerating its plans to shift its entire 787 production line to North Charleston, shaving several months off the transition schedule. 

The planemaker will start its previously announced consolidation of the Dreamliner program in March, spokeswoman Libba Holland said Thursday.

The company previously said the move would begin in "mid-2021" when it announced the decision in the fall

The new timeline gives the 787 line in Everett, Wash., a couple of months before the last plane rolls out of the hangar. But because of ongoing issues with a flaw found in some Dreamliners, work related to the wide-body program will continue on the West Coast beyond that date. 

Completed jets in the Puget Sound region will continue to be evaluated for issues with skin flatness in joins of fuselage sections, a problem that Boeing said last week was more widespread than it had initially thought. 

“We remain committed to delivering only safe and high-quality airplanes, and have strengthened our quality assurance program over the last 12 months," the company said in a statement. "As we continue to conduct comprehensive inspections on undelivered 787s to ensure each meets our highest standards prior to delivery, we’re leveraging our South Carolina and Everett facilities to complete inspections, and any rework, as necessary."

About 900 Boeing employees in Everett work on the 787 program. The company hasn't said yet what will be happening with those workers. 

When the North Charleston plant becomes the sole 787 final assembly site, it will be making fewer jets per month than it did while sharing production with the Everett line.

Boeing lowered the production rate for the program several times in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated demand for new planes. Most recently, the monthly output figure was lowered to five 787s from six.

The planemaker said it is "preparing to efficiently transition" to the five-per-month rate, while "maintaining supply chain and production stability."

Until that transition is completed, Boeing will be producing fewer than 10 Dreamliners a month, finance chief Greg Smith said during a conference in early December. 

Smith also spoke about the “large number of 787 aircraft in inventory," the result of the sharp decline in deliveries, as well as the extra inspections and rework on affected planes. The safety reviews are taking longer than expected, he said at the time. 

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The recent expansion of inspections offers some explanation for why. Now, all joins in the 787 fuselage are checked to see if they meet "specified skin flatness tolerances," Boeing said. Previously, only the aft section  that's made in North Charleston was being examined.

In addition to continuing to check for fuselage flaws, Everett employees will also handle any of the rework needed until all of the completed 787s in Washington have been handed off to customers. 

From that point on, all Dreamliner deliveries will be handled at the Boeing campus next to Charleston International Airport.

The possibility of shuttering one of the 787 final assembly sites was first raised in late July, when CEO Dave Calhoun said the company was studying consolidation options. 

Industry watchers and aerospace experts quickly pointed to the South Carolina plant as the likely survivor.

One reason is that the site is the exclusive maker of the 787-10 model. Also, the North Charleston campus makes fuselage parts that must be transported to Everett on Boeing's fleet of Dreamlifter cargo jets, which adds costs and time to the production process.

In addition to the logistical considerations, analysts pointed to the fact that the company's South Carolina workforce is not represented by unions, while its employees in Washington state are. 

When the decision was announced in October, Stan Deal, who runs the commercial aircraft business, said the move would make Boeing "more competitive and efficient" and better able to “weather these challenging times and win new business.”

The consolidation isn't likely to add many jobs in North Charleston, at least not immediately. The company has been cutting its global workforce, including in South Carolina. Also, the lower 787 production rate will mean a decrease in work being completed.

Boeing hopes that eventually will change. 

Calhoun said earlier this year the company would only consolidate its 787 manufacturing program if the site it selected could support a double-digit rate once demand recovers. 

Based on his own estimates, that will take some time. Calhoun has predicted it will take about three years for air travel to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Success for the 787, which is favored for long-haul overseas routes, will depend largely on international demand, which is expected to take longer to bounce back compared to traffic on short-haul domestic routes.

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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