Expansion plans at S.C. plant suggest Washington state won't get newest Dreamliner production

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

WASHINGTON — Boeing will more than double the number of parking slots for finished jetliners and add a second final-assembly line at its plant in North Charleston, S.C., according to a recent document that also suggests the newest version of the 787 Dreamliner may not be built in Everett.

The public filing details how Boeing will grow at its 265-acre campus next to Charleston International Airport, as well as on 468 acres of adjacent land the state bought this month to lease long term to the company.

Boeing outlined its plans in papers filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seeking approval to use federal wetlands. The disclosure was required because Boeing proposes to excavate or fill almost 154 acres of federal waters to level the ground for construction.

Included are nearly 20 acres of wetlands or upland buffers that were protected under a restrictive covenant when the Boeing plant was built in 2011.

Most immediately, Boeing will expand its flight line—where finished jets are parked for engine and fuel testing before test flight—from seven stalls to 16. The plan also includes a previously announced paint facility so that finished Dreamliners can be delivered to customers in North Charleston without first being flown to Fort Worth, Texas, for final painting.

Starting in 2016 or after, the document says, Boeing will enlarge its existing final-assembly plant southward to fit in a second, parallel production line.

Analysts have speculated Boeing was making room for final assembly of the 787-10, the newest and longest derivative of the popular Dreamliner—or for perhaps even the 777X that’s the focus of a pending multistate competition.

The latest details of Boeing’s expansion plans reinforce indications that the 787-10 likely will get built in North Charleston, said Scott Hamilton, an aviation analyst with Leeham in Issaquah.

Boeing is expected to announce the final-assembly site for the 787-10 in March.

Currently, Boeing’s widebody plant in Everett assembles both the base 787-8 model and thestretch 787-9. North Charleston handles final assembly for the 787-8 and is to begin producing the 787-9 next fall.

At 224 feet, the 787-10 is 40 feet longer than the 787-8. The current North Charleston plant is nearly 1,100 feet long, according to scale maps in the public notice released by the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

That’s room enough to fit four 787-10s in line. In Everett, Hamilton said, a nose-to-tail 787-10 assembly line would have to be at an angle, which is less efficient.

Boeing is proposing to replace North Charleston’s single U-shaped assembly line with two parallel lines by stretching the plant by about 800 feet.

Boeing’s long-term plan for North Charleston calls for adding 3.4 million square feet of manufacturing space to the west and south of the current plant, near the intersection of Michaux Parkway and International Boulevard. Also included are additional office space and parking.

Boeing recently gave up first right of refusal to buy an additional 488 acres of land west of the airport, saying it could always come back to it.

Jack Jones, general manager of Boeing’s South Carolina operations, had steadfastly declined to specify the company’s plans for all the available land.

Boeing is producing a total 10 Dreamliners a month from the two assembly lines in Everett and the single line in North Charleston but doesn’t break out each plant’s output. The combined rate is to quicken to 12 a month by 2016 and to 14 a month by 2019.

That scenario calls for seven Dreamliners a month to roll out of North Charleston by 2018-19. On top of that, Boeing is building a North Charleston plant to design and assemble engine inlets for the 737 MAX to be produced in Renton.

That might keep North Charleston too busy, Hamilton believes, to have a shot at landing the 777X if Puget Sound-area Machinists again reject Boeing’s contract offer Friday.

The 777X “is more than I think Charleston can handle,” Hamilton said. “But Boeing being Boeing, you never know.”

Connie Kelliher, spokeswoman for International Association of Machinists District 751, which represents Boeing’s Puget Sound-area assembly workers, said the union believes tooling Boeing installed in the Everett plant is equipped to handle the 787-10’s longer fuselage.

What’s more, Kelliher contends, analysts and Boeing workers think the only way the company can meet its accelerated production for the Dreamliner would be to keep the second “surge” line in Everett going permanently.

Kelliher said Everett is slated to ramp up to nine 787s a month in early 2014, far outpacing North Charleston.”We are certainly producing more than our share of 787’s right now,” she said.

The public in South Carolina has until Jan. 20 to comment on Boeing’s expansion plan. In exchange for use of federal wetland near the Ashley River, Boeing has offered to preserve 3,618 acres of nearby Cooper River watershed as well as clean out 150 acres in another watershed to restore natural plants and animals.


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