Politics & Government

State has work to do bolstering Boeing ties

Washington’s long history of aircraft manufacturing, its broad network of aerospace suppliers and its experienced work force of engineers and assembly workers gives the state a head start in the race to win Boeing’s newest airliner assembly plant, a new study says.

But that study, released Wednesday, says the state needs to bolster its technical and professional engineering education resources if it is to keep its human advantages.

The study, by the consulting firm Accenture, was the latest step in the state’s effort to win Boeing’s favor in selecting a site to build the aerospace company’s 737 MAX aircraft.

That plane, an updated version of Boeing’s best-selling 737, could provide up to 20,000 jobs in whatever state the plane is built.

Boeing now builds the 737 in its Renton plant. Boeing has said it expects to decide where the updated plane is built in about six months.

“There’s no question that Washington state is the best place in the world to build the Boeing 737 MAX jetliner,” said Gregoire at a Renton news conference. “And I believe that when all is said and done, Boeing will make the best decision and build this game-changing aircraft in this state.”

But Gregoire, who has seen Boeing twice turn its back on its native state, once when it moved its headquarters to Chicago and a second time when it built a 787 Dreamliner assembly line in South Carolina, said she’s taking nothing for granted.

She announced a budget- minded action plan to enhance the education of aerospace workers in the state.

That plan includes a new aerospace curriculum at 12 high schools, a new science and mathematics problem-solving course at 10 high schools and a $7.6 million program to enhance engineering education at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

The governor’s plan would also designate $1.5 million plus other funds from private donors to create a Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation at UW and WSU.

Gregoire said she will create an aerospace office within her staff to coordinate and grow aerospace opportunities in the state.

The governor’s plan has a bargain-basement total price of less than $10 million compared with the multi-billion dollar plan the state presented Boeing to win its first Dreamliner assembly line.

Bruce Kendall, chief executive of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, said the most immediate task for Pierce County is for its substantial statehouse legislative delegation to put its weight behind the governor’s plan.

“We’re the second largest county, and we have several influential legislators in our delegation,” he said. “We can play a key role in making sure these ideas are carried out.”

Keeping Boeing’s focus on Washington is important for Pierce County because Boeing’s Frederickson plant is the county’s largest manufacturer. About 1,700 workers are employed at the plant, which makes wing components for Boeing airliners and the composite tail structures for the Boeing 777 and 787.

The study identified nine states, Texas, Kansas, California, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, New Mexico and Idaho that have expressed interest in attracting the 737 MAX assembly plant.

Boeing already has major facilities in all of those states except New Mexico and North Carolina. And most of those states are likely to lure Boeing with the prospect of lower wages and nonunion work forces.

And most have more incentives to offer Boeing if it showed an interest. South Carolina, for instance, reportedly spent more than $800 million in construction payments and tax incentives to lure Boeing to build an new Dreamliner assembly line in North Charleston.

Washington is prohibited by its constitution from making direct incentive payments to private companies.

One reality in Washington’s favor is that Boeing says it doesn’t want to overreach with its updates on the 737. The plane will feature new, more fuel-efficient engines, aerodynamic improvements and some cosmetic changes, but the company is making a deliberate attempt to keep the updates simple and doable. The plane’s fuselage will still be made of metal, not composite like the 787. And its cockpit will be substantially similar to the present-day 737 Next Generation.

With the 787, Boeing changed nearly everything from its predecessor, the 767. Most of the plane is built of composites. The controls are electrically powered, not hydraulic and the plane’s heating and air conditioning system is no longer powered by air bled from the engines. And at the same time Boeing was changing the plane’s architecture radically, it changed its production system completely handing over production and in some cases design responsibility to a series of partner companies.

The net result was plane that made its commercial debut this month, nearly 31/2 years after its original debut date.

Some of those partners built component plants in locales without a deep pool of aerospace workers. Boeing ended up buying out the component plants in North Charleston from its partners because they were performing poorly under those partners’ management.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663 john.gillie@thenewstribune.com