Business Columns & Blogs

Foundation of Washington’s economy still an aerospace show

Planning can be overrated, especially when reality steps in with some events that weren’t incorporated in the outlook for the coming year.

Boeing, for example, probably didn’t have as part of its 2019 plan a worldwide grounding of the latest version of the 737, to the extent that it is parking planes awaiting fixes and delivery in any available space. If you want to see the commercial-aviation version of a parking lot, take a drive just north of the Museum of Flight in Tukwila and ogle all the planes parked on both sides of East Marginal Way. Reports circulate that Boeing also has planes parked at Moses Lake.

Those are planes that ought to be in airline fleets, generating revenue for those carriers and, by extension, Boeing. That they’re not is only the short-term problem with the plane. Then there are the medium and long-term issues of getting the airplane certified to fly, the willingness of the public to trust a plane model with two crashes early in its operating life and what uncertainty over the Max’s future does to decisions about Boeing’s lineup of models and additions to it.

The recently concluded Paris Air Show was supposed to be a venue for Boeing to further tease, maybe even publicly commit to, the new “middle of the market” plane it’s been considering (to occupy roughly the same market segment as the 757). Instead, for Boeing the focus was on the Max. It did get a bit of a lift in the form of a 200-plane order for the Max from International Airlines Group (parent of British Airways, among others). Meanwhile Airbus formally launched the A321XLR, a plane seen by some as targeted for the same market slice as the yet-to-be-named Boeing new-model plane.

Those weren’t the only bits of news of local interest and relevance to come out of the show or more recently. Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. has been testing its new regional jet, the first of which is scheduled for entry into service next year, at Moses Lake. Earlier this year it opened its North American headquarters in Renton earlier this year. Now it has signed a deal to acquire Bombardier’s regional jet program (the Canadian company earlier turned over its larger passenger jet program to Airbus).

There’s a lot of activity in the electric-propulsion corner of aviation. Magnix, a Redmond company developing electric motors for smaller planes, already has an agreement to supply electric motors to Harbour Air, a Vancouver, B.C., carrier that operates float planes. It’s also been working with an Israeli aircraft development company, Eviation, that announced at the Paris Air Show it has an agreement with Cape Air to supply electric-power planes; magnix (the lower-case m is corporate style) will be one of two options for power systems. Flight testing will be done at Moses Lake.

Tech gets all the attention when it comes to job growth and pay levels, but for providing the foundation of Washington’s economic performance, it’s still an aerospace show. The aerospace products and parts category in the Employment Security Department’s monthly reports currently accounts for about 87,800 jobs statewide, and that’s probably undercounting the total when it comes to subcontractors, suppliers and service vendors living mostly or entirely off the aerospace ecosystem.

Furthermore, tech’s geographic scope and influence is much more limited than aerospace which is huge in the Puget Sound region and along the I-5 corridor. It’s also a significant presence in places like the aforementioned Moses Lake and in Spokane.

Keeping the state’s aerospace cluster alive and thriving depends on Boeing’s performance as well as new entrants to the market like Mitsubishi and magnix. (Boeing, by the way, is backing another entrant in the electric-powered aviation market, Kirkland-based Zunum Aero.)

With the year barely half done, a lot of planning about where the state’s dominant aerospace company would be right now has been round-filed. There’s not much certainty in the planning for the next six months, except for this – whatever reality has in store will make a big difference to the state’s economy and the businesses and workers that make it up.

Speaking of transportation and safety issues, the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak Cascades passenger train near DuPont makes for some bracing reading, particularly the letter from board member Bruce Landsberg.

“There was a Titanic-like complacency and certainty exhibited by those tasked with the safety, operation and management of the Point Defiance Bypass rail line before the revenue service started in 2017,” Landsberg wrote. “Like the Titanic, the crash happened on the very first passenger run. The term ‘accident’ is inappropriate because that implies that this was an unforeseen and unpredictable event. It was anything but unforeseeable.”

Landsberg’s letter goes after the involved entities, including Sound Transit (the owner of the bypass line) and the Washington State Department of Transportation, but he’s especially caustic on the subject of aides to engineers about hazards – like curves that should be taken at 30 miles per hour, not nearly 80 – and the industry’s protestations about the cost and impracticality of such systems.

“I must assume that none of their management or staff have any familiarity with map applications on smart phones and tablets,” he wrote. “Moving maps as supplemental equipment on tablets and installed devices have been used for a decade or more in aircraft, boats and other ground transport vehicles. That’s how navigation is done today.”

The NTSB doesn’t have enforcement power; it can only recommend, and on occasion scold. The tone of that letter and one from another board member suggest that the board is getting tired of recommending to no effect, and is upping the rhetoric. What comes after scolding? Stand by for the NTSB’s next rail-safety accident investigation report to find out.

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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