Only weeks after announcing that it expects to complete production of the highly-regarded C-17 airlifter at Long Beach, California in 2015, the Boeing Company is eyeing a new role for the 5,000 workers at the site: assembly of its planned 777X widebody airliner.
Boeing says the 777X will be “the largest and most-efficient twin engine jet in the world,” offering 20% better fuel efficiency than the existing 777 as it flies 350-400 passengers to ranges of over 9,000 nautical miles.
In combination with the new 787 Dreamliner, 777X is expected to dominate the high end of the commercial transport market after it debuts around 2020.
Reuters reported earlier today that the company has initiated discussions with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) to determine whether the 777X can be built at an acceptable cost in the company’s Everett, Washington plant.
The company is determined to exercise tight control over the cost of developing and producing the plane, because it believes that in combination, the 787 and 777X can take market share from lower-performance Airbus products as long as the Boeing offerings are affordable.
Boeing has traditionally followed a strategy of developing “disruptive” technologies that transform the nature of air travel, while Airbus has offered more prosaic airframes keyed to concessionary pricing.
The current IAM contract at the Puget Sound location expires in 2016, the year after C-17 production ceases at Long Beach.
The company has begun early discussions for a follow-on agreement because the terms the union is willing to offer will determine whether the 777X and its revolutionary composite wing are built in the Puget Sound region or elsewhere.
Boeing recently opened a second production facility for the 787 in South Carolina that could potentially offer an alternative to Puget Sound or Long Beach for 777X assembly (the company has been buying land adjacent to the South Carolina plant). Other sites said to be under consideration for 777X production include Texas and Utah.
Disposition of the wing assembly for 777X is especially critical to the future of aircraft manufacturing in Puget Sound, because the advanced composite wings for the Dreamliner are made in Japan as part of the global sourcing strategy for that plane.
If Puget Sound did not win the 777X wing work, then it would be two generations behind the prevailing state of the art, and probably lack the skills to recover lost ground. Whichever U.S. site wins the wing and other 777X work will presumably enjoy 20-25 years of steady economic activity, generating thousands of direct and indirect jobs.
Unlike in Puget Sound, workers at the C-17 plant in Long Beach are represented by the United Auto Workers.
(Loren Thompson - Forbes)