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Once Boeing launches next jet, some in industry say Charleston has shot at building it

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Boeing Co. builds the 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Boeing Co. hasn't announced any decisions about its next commercial aircraft program, but, when that time comes, some industry insiders think South Carolina might have a good shot at building the new plane.

A recent survey from the aviation-focused site AirInsight asked working aerospace professionals to weigh in on what choices the company might make when it launches another jet program. 

Michel Merluzeau, an analyst who heads AirInsight's research unit, included the findings in a presentation for the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance's annual conference, which was held virtually Feb. 8-11.

Merluzeau said the results of their survey showed that three sites “clearly have strong potential." One of them was North Charleston. 

One Boeing jet, the widebody 787, is made at a campus next to Charleston International Airport that is about to become the exclusive manufacturing site for that program. Boeing plans to officially consolidate all Dreamliner production in South Carolina in March and shut down the West Coast line in Everett, Wash.

Boeing still builds other widebodies, such as 767 freighters and the 777X, in the Seattle suburb. And the recently recertified 737 Max is assembled about 40 miles south in Renton, Wash. 

The AirInsight survey specified five locations — Seattle, North Charleston, San Antonio, Huntsville, Ala., and Salt Lake City — with options to choose “definitely,” “probably,” “possible” and “unlikely” for their likelihood of being chosen to build the next Boeing aircraft.

“Probably” was the most frequently selected option, and Merluzeau said those “probably” answers were “fairly evenly divided between North Charleston and Seattle” with “a little bit less for Huntsville.”

The survey was not scientific, Merluzeau cautioned, but it was a “good indicator of the mindset of industry professionals as to what Boeing might be doing in the future for whatever aircraft it’s planning.”

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“What is interesting is the perception that Charleston is growing stronger as a potential site,” Merluzeau said.

There's also "nothing that precludes Boeing" from deciding to split the work for another program between Puget Sound and the Lowcountry, just as Boeing has done with the 787 up until the recently announced consolidation, he said. 

As for what the next jet program will actually be — and when the aerospace giant will make a decision — that's still up for debate. 

Analysts agree, though, that Boeing needs to move soon to launch a new model that can compete with rival Airbus' narrowbody A321neo.

During Boeing's last earnings call on Jan. 27, CEO Dave Calhoun didn't offer any specifics when asked about making changes to the commercial aircraft stable. 

"We're going to take a little time, and we don't feel significantly disadvantaged with our portfolio versus their portfolio," Calhoun told investors. 

He did say that a A321-sized jet is "pretty much in the right space with respect to where next development efforts lean," but added that he didn't "want to call it out just yet."

Since international air travel is expected to see the slowest recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry is looking to narrowbody jets because airlines favor them for shorter routes.

Widebodies like the South Carolina-made 787 that are built for long-haul flights are projected to be less desirable until demand for overseas trips catches back up. 

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

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