Boeing Co. hired nearly 600 workers at its North Charleston campus last year to build more 787 Dreamliner jets, but reports show a couple of big orders helping to back the production increase might be in jeopardy.
Aviation reporter Jon Ostrower first reported last week cracks in a deal by Emirates Airline to buy 40 787-10s, which are built exclusively in North Charleston.
Scott Hamilton, editor of aviation-focused Leeham News and Analysys, on Monday wrote that Emirates wants to cancel its order because the wide-body plane's Rolls Royce engines "are too small for the very hot environment centered in Dubai," the carrier's home base.
The Emirates order — valued at $15.1 billion at list prices — was announced in November 2017 but has never officially been posted on Boeing's website. Bloomberg News also reported that the Emirates order might be canceled, but it did not cite a reason.
The "Dash 10" is the largest member of the three-jet Dreamliner family.
Hamilton told The Post and Courier that another United Arab Emirates carrier — Etihad Airways — wants to cancel its order for 787-10s. The Abu Dhabi airline has ordered 30 of the planes and has already taken delivery of four, according to Boeing's website. Etihad's planes are powered by GE engines.
Boeing spokeswoman Libba Holland said the company did not have a comment on the reports.
The news comes as Boeing is getting ready to boost Dreamliner production to 14 a month, up from the current 12, split between assembly sites in North Charleston and Everett, Wash.
David Carbon, vice president of 787 operations in South Carolina, told diplomats touring the South Carolina site in October that the aerospace giant was recruiting workers for the rate increase. Annual employment totals released by Boeing show the plant's headcount increased by 592 in 2018, bringing total employment to 7,341 workers.
All told, Boeing added 8,905 workers to its global payroll in 2018 — about half of them for commercial airplanes. The rest is split between the company's other divisions.
Hamilton said he doubts cancellations by Emirates and Etihad would alter Boeing's plans to increase 787 production because the company "wants the cash flow for shareholder buybacks (and) dividends."
Uresh Sheth, who tracks Dreamliner production on his All Things 787 website, reports "there is evidence that Boeing is already at 14 (per month) as Boeing began final assembly on 14 787s during January."
The company will probably start delivering at the 14-per-month rate in March or April, Sheth said.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told financial analysts last week that "we have started transitioning to 14 per month in our factories and supply chain ... (and) we expect to complete the transition in the second quarter."
Other reports indicate Boeing has shortened its North Charleston final assembly turnaround time to 14 days per plane — down from 15 — with a goal of getting to 12 days when the production ramp-up is complete.
Sheth said an Emirates cancellation "would be a big blow to Boeing," which wants to place Dreamliners in the fleets of all three major Gulf carriers. That includes Qatar Airways, which flies 30 787-8s and has an unfilled order for 30 787-9s.
Ostrower noted on his website, The Air Current, that the Emirates and Etihad deals are in jeopardy as the airlines reassess their future growth strategies. He pointed to myriad factors
"Now, falling oil prices, congested airspace, limited space at Dubai International and the unfinished Dubai World Central (airport) have all weighed on Emirates' expansion plans," Ostrower wrote. "And bad bets on equity partners in Italy, Germany and India have scuttled Etihad's grand plans, too."
Ostrower said growth of Middle East airlines "has been caught in the undertow," adding "the other shoe is starting to drop."
The 787-10 has 169 official orders, according to Boeing's website, and has been stuck at that figure for about two years.
The Dreamliner program has a backlog of 622 planes — a little less than four years at the 14-per-month rate. Sheth said if Boeing gets fewer than 144 new orders annually for the next two years the production rate will be cut back to 12 per month.