KEARNEY COLUMN: Boeing planning “another line” in North Charleston aft-body factory?

The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner made in its South Carolina assembly plant took flight for its first flight and was visible to motorists on Palmetto Commerce Parkway as it circled North Charleston doing 'touch-and-go' landing and takeoff testing at the Charleston International Airport on Wednesday afternoon May 23, 2012. (Wade Spees/

It’s hard to say for sure, but there may be a major expansion of Boeing Co.’s Dreamliner aft-body factory in North Charleston in the works.

At the company’s annual investor conference in St. Louis this month, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh said three times that, in order for the 787 program to reach its target production rate of 10 Dreamliners a month, the aft-body operation would need to add a third line.

“To go to 10, I really believe that the real issues are going to be in our control, and that’s good. It’s going to be the aft and also the mid-body that we do down in Charleston,” he said.

“We know we’re going to have to put in some additional drilling machines. We know we’re going to have to add another line, I think, in aft. We’ve got a plan to do that.”

When analysts asked questions, Albaugh reiterated the point.

“We’ve got to put in a third line, we think, in the aft area,” he said on one occasion.

“We’ve always known that we need to have a third join line in aft and we’re putting that in,” Albaugh said minutes later. “These are all things that we anticipated and we knew we eventually had to do.”

Asked about Albaugh’s remarks hours after he made them, a Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman seemed to say he was talking about a third line that has already been installed in the neighboring mid-body assembly building.

“What he was talking about in the aft-body is we have added new tooling …,” Candy Eslinger, the spokeswoman, said May 15.

She said the aft-body operation has added a second join tool and is installing a fourth “Brotje” machine, which drills and fills holes in the Dreamliner’s composite fuselage sections.

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But Albaugh’s mentions of the new tooling and the plans for the new line had been separate and discrete. So in the afterglow of the first S.C.-built Dreamliner’s successful first flight, I reposed the question about the plans for another line in aft-body.

Eslinger again seemed to say there are no plans to add a third line in the factory and said she stood by her prior statement, which she then sent in an email. It said: “Boeing is continuing to invest in the resources and infrastructure needed to be successful in South Carolina” but didn’t specifically address any plans for a third line in the 88-19 building.

“We’re taking the appropriate steps, including investing in additional infrastructure where appropriate, to ensure we meet commitments to our customers,” the statement read.

So, either I’m misunderstanding what the big boss meant by “another line,” or his local employees aren’t authorized to confirm that plan. Either way, this potential third aft-body line is likely only a small piece of the overall growth plan for Boeing South Carolina. Stay tuned.