State can’t take its eye off aerospace

contributing writerApril 1, 2012 

Washington’s aerospace sector has been on a takeoff roll of late – the 767 tanker deal, the agreement with the Machinists union to build the 737 Max at Renton, a major international conference in Seattle designed to link buyers and suppliers. “We’ve got some great momentum in aerospace right now,” state Department of Commerce Director Rogers Weed said recently.

But complacency can be dangerous, a point that was made on multiple occasions by Tayloe Washburn, who served as the governor’s point person on aerospace issues, and re-emphasized by Alex Pietsch, the recently appointed director of the Governor’s Aerospace Office.

“The state has a great track record of success,” Pietsch said. “Where we fall off a bit is maintaining that momentum. Sometimes we miss out on opportunities in between.”

And so to fulfill our public mission of keeping the readership nervous and worried, we offer a few reminders of the hazards of neglectfulness as it relates to an industry that drives so much of the regional economy and has kept it treading water when segments such as construction threatened to pull it under.

Exhibit A comes from a familiar regional nemesis, South Carolina, home of a Boeing 787 assembly line. Not that there was much doubt, but a recent story in the Charleston Post and Courier provides further confirmation that local ambitions in aerospace do not stop with that facility.

Chip Limehouse, a state representative who is also chairman of the Charleston County Airport Authority, told a meeting of that body that “Boeing has come to us and asked us for a huge portion of our land,” the paper reported. “Boeing is going to come here and build another line.”

Another line of what hasn’t been made clear, but there are multiple possibilities. One is another 787 assembly line, which would make sense since that’s what Boeing already builds there and the company has a backlog of delayed planes to work through.

Then there’s the 737 Max. The Renton plant is in the midst of a multistep process to increase production to 42 planes per month. What if Boeing wants more? Local officials believe the Renton plant can accommodate even greater production rates. But if Boeing wants to diversify production beyond one site, South Carolina looks to be a candidate for increased capacity.

At some point Boeing will decide what to do with the 777, in the form of a new plane or a re-engined or redesigned 777, as was done with the 737. Again, Puget Sound – or somewhere else?

The state will be making the case to Boeing that if it needs a somewhere else beyond Renton and Everett, it can look to other places in the state – Kitsap County, Moses Lake, Spokane – that are interested in aircraft assembly and are still in close proximity to the existing supply chain and supplier base.

To make that argument, the state and regions interested in aerospace will need to have answers for issues such as land and workforce availability and transportation snarls. But better to be thinking about those issues now, and maybe even come up with some plans and solutions, than to throw something together in desperation under last-minute deadline pressure.

Which is good, so if our point is to leave you disquieted, here’s more fodder for fretting. An aircraft-leasing executive recently warned in a Wall Street Journal interview that Boeing and Airbus are running the risk of over-building airplanes. It’s not the first time that concern has been raised. Some analysts have marveled at the continued pace of plane orders worldwide throughout the recession and its aftermath.

Has the sunshine of optimism been replaced by the overcast of worry? Then our work is done for the day.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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