Over the past year, Boeing executives have both praised Boeing South Carolina for its progress and called out the North Charleston plane-making plant as a weak link in the global 787 Dreamliner supply chain.
In a conversation with investors Friday morning, new Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner did not send mixed messages. He’s bullish on the local 787 manufacturing complex.
“I’m really proud of what they’ve been doing down there. It’s a great story,” he said.
He added that Jack Jones, Boeing South Carolina’s vice president and general manager “and the team down there are really hitting it out of the park.”
Conner, who took over the top job at Boeing’s airplane-making unit in late June, said the aft- and mid-body factories in North Charleston are producing at the program’s target rate of five jets per month, and the local final assembly factory will be churning out two completed planes a month “pretty soon.”
Boeing South Carolina rolled out its first plane April 27, the next June 30 and the third on Aug. 19. Air India took delivery of its first Dreamliner from the local plant a week ago, but that plane was assembled in Everett, Wash.
“We are at five a month in the supply chain today and we are breaking back in our factories right now to five and we will end the year at five a month on the 787,” Conner said.
“We’ve got a couple of hot spots,” Conner continued, using the term Boeing Co. CEO Jim McNerney used in July to describe the aft-body factory. “But nothing that’s got me freaked out about it.”
Appearing at the Morgan Stanley Industrials and Auto Conference, Conner covered topics ranging from the ongoing contract negotiations with Boeing’s engineers union to the airframer’s plans for new versions of its single-aisle workhorse 737 and its twin-aisle 777. But as has become the norm, much of the 40-minute webcast discussion in New York Friday centered on the production of the 787 Dreamliner.
“The rate and profitability are the two big things,” Conner said of the long-delayed program. He said Boeing is applying the “full-court press working with the suppliers on both of those.”
Between this summer and the end of next year, Boeing plans to increase production of the 787 to five from 3.5, then to seven, and eventually to 10 between its North Charleston assembly line and two lines in Everett. Conner said he remains optimistic about that schedule and what it will mean for Boeing’s bottom line.
“So if we hit these rate ramps, we’re going to be doing well and we’re going to hit them,” he said.
Conner was not asked about the recent failures of the GEnx engines that power some Boeing 787s and all Boeing 747s. But he was asked about the decision by Australian airline Qantas last month to cancel an order for 35 Dreamliners. Conner said that setback was “unique to Qantas” and doesn’t change Boeing’s 787 outlook.
“I’ve been getting calls all the time about trying to get those positions now,” he said, hinting that Boeing was not inclined to fill those slots right away.
In one of his first public conversations since taking over for Jim Albaugh, Conner seemed generally at ease, responding to questions from Morgan Stanley’s Heidi Wood and an audience member with ones of his own.
When someone asked whether Boeing could actually increase its 787 production rate to 10 airplanes per month by the end of next year, Conner asked, “Do you know how to drive rivets?”
And when Wood asked about all the nearly completed 787s on the flight line in Everett, Conner was ready: “Yeah, you want one?” he quipped.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906