Boeing has confirmed reports that the production of the flagship 787 airplane will be consolidated in South Carolina. The company says the move will help conserve cash during the pandemic, when demand for planes is low.
But Jon Ostrower, editor-in-chief of The Air Current, says the seeds of the move were planted long ago, back in 2008-09, when the 787 production was just getting off the ground.
The company made a decision at that time to buy space in South Carolina, which had formerly been owned by a supplier, and eventually decided to open a second final assembly line in South Carolina. It was a move that, for many, signaled an intent to eventually move to South Carolina.
"For historical context," Ostrower says, "a commercial aircraft manufacturer, on any continent, at any time in aviation history, has never built a twin aisle airplane in two different places. So, right off the bat, it was clear that by duplicating the 787 line ... that was a signal that there was a desire to expand in South Carolina, and in a way that looked far more zero sum than it was additive to Boeing's core manufacturing operations in the Pacific Northwest. That if Charleston expanded, then there was something that was not going to be happening in Everett."
Some have speculated that the move to increase efficiency by consolidating was really a cover for getting out of a location with a unionized workforce and into a location in a right-to-work state.
Ostrower says it's not that simple — but that there's definitely more going on than what's in the Boeing statement on the planned move.
"Certainly, I would say understanding the history of all of this, and the relationship between Boeing's workforce and Boeing's management is the largest piece of this," Ostrower says. "There are efficiencies that you gain by having everything under one roof. The question that Boeing will get the answer to, in the next several years, is whether or not that decision will do more damage to the larger enterprise than it gains by having South Carolina have all of 787."
As for what it means for the region, Ostrower says this is not going to be a repeat of history, when job loss at Boeing meant economic devastation for the region.
"This is not the end of Everett, this is not the end of manufacturing in the Puget Sound, but this enters a period of a lot of uncertainty, that I think is going to guide what happens to Boeing," Ostrower says. "Here we are, 2020. I would say 20 years ago the region was significantly more exposed to industry downturns, and just the nature of the changed Western Washington economy is extremely notable."
Western Washington now has other regional powerhouses such as Starbucks, Microsoft, and Amazon — the latter of which, notably, is venturing into aerospace through its Prime Air service and other programs.