When the first passengers took off in Boeing’s 747 in 1970, the aircraft was dubbed the “Queen of the Skies.” Since then, the company’s mammoth plant just south of Everett has been the kingpin of the world’s jumbo jet production.
To date, Boeing has built 1,500 747s — all of them designed and assembled in Washington.
In 1994, the company launched the 777. Developed in consultation with eight major airlines, it was designed to replace older wide-body airliners and offer passenger capacity between that of the 767 and the 747.
The 777 was a technical marvel. It was Boeing's first fly-by-wire airliner (electric motors to move flaps) and the first commercial aircraft designed entirely by computer. It too was designed and assembled in Washington.
But things are changing.
Just as Boeing competes head-to-head with Airbus in the jumbo jet market, Washington is competing with South Carolina and other parts of the country to assemble the next generation of jumbo jets.
Nowhere is that rivalry more evident than the next generation of Boeing’s 777: the 777X.
The stakes are high for everyone.
Boeing employs more than 86,500 people in Washington, averaging $120,000 a year in salary and benefits. In addition, the company spends more than $4.6 billion a year on purchases from 2,000 suppliers and vendors in the state. But over the years, Boeing has shifted engineering and operations and thousands of jobs out of Washington.
To stem that tide, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) convened a legislative task force to find ways to make our state more attractive for Boeing to build the 777X here.
The governor has reason to be concerned. At the Paris Air Show last spring, Boeing announced that the 777X and the newer, larger 787-10 might be assembled elsewhere. The prime candidate is South Carolina.
One big factor is the high cost of doing business in Washington. The governor asked lawmakers to find ways to address those costs and provide tax incentives to offset them. Legislators are also asked to address environmental regulations, workers’ compensation costs, and education and training – expenses that impact all employers and local governments in Washington.
The 777X could determine our state’s role in future jumbo jet production.
Using 20 percent less fuel than the current 777, the 777X will be the first twin-engine jet able to fly long-haul routes with payloads comparable to the larger jumbos. According to Bloomberg’s News Service, that’s likely to accelerate airlines’ shift away from mammoth, four-engine fuel-guzzlers such as Boeing’s latest 747-8 and Airbus’s double-decker A380.
Boeing’s order backlog with 777s has swelled to nearly 350 while it has just under 60 747s yet to build. So the preference is clearly in the 777’s direction.
The 777X will borrow composite technology from Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. That is good news for us, because that technology has been perfected in Washington. But Boeing is maximizing its flexibility — and its options — by placing composite technology in South Carolina as well. Remember, the 787 is assembled in both Everett and Charleston.
The location of the new 777X is also important because the winning site will have an edge as Boeing develops its future aircraft.
The stakes are high for Boeing as well, because global competition is getting tougher.
While Boeing and Airbus are going head-to-head today, in the future, Brazilian, Canadian, Chinese and Russian aircraft manufacturers will compete for a greater share of the commercial airplane market. Boeing estimates that between now and 2031, the fleet of passenger aircraft will double.
If our state is going to keep those high-paying aerospace jobs, we need to take a serious look at the cost factors that Boeing, and for that matter, other manufacturers face in this increasingly competitive world.
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.