Jet jitters: Expected 777 upgrade raises question: Where will it be built?

Boeing board members in the coming weeks are expected to give Boeing Commercial Airplanes the green light for selling and building an upgraded version of the 777 - a decision that comes with a recurring dose of anxiety for Washington state.

In recent years, every Boeing decision to build a new or upgraded jetliner has been accompanied by concerns over how much of the work would be done in Washington state. Boeing's decision to open a second 787 assembly plant in South Carolina in 2009 only heightened Washington's anxiety.

At stake with every new and upgraded Boeing aircraft are hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs, to say nothing of the health of a diverse array of Boeing suppliers with Washington state operations.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has already vowed to do "everything in my power" to keep the assembly of the upgraded 777 in Washington state.

Boeing's board is expected to give Boeing Commercial Airplanes division the "authority to offer" to customers an upgraded version of the 777 jetliner dubbed the 777X. That action could come before the Chicago-based company's annual meeting on April 29.

Boeing has promised to start delivering the first 777Xs, with new composite wings and engines, into service before 2020.

In Boeing's fourth-quarter conference call with analysts on Jan. 30, Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith said the "most likely design is some increased capacity and a composite wing with new engines, and some other additional work."

The company on March 15 took a concrete step toward producing the 777X when it selected GE Aviation to supply engines for the aircraft.

Sometime after the Boeing board decides to proceed with the 777X, the company will decide where to assemble the aircraft. Conventional wisdom says the jet would be built in Everett, but that's far from certain.
The topic has given John Monroe some sleepless nights. Monroe, chief operating officer of the Economic Alliance Snohomish County, was previously an engineer at Boeing.

"I'm worried it (the 777X) won't be done in Puget Sound," he said. "We need to be doing the right things as a county and state to make the incentives for it to stay here."

Monroe is concerned about whether Boeing would open a new 777X production line rather than adding the new aircraft to the existing production line in Everett. A dramatically new design for the 777X could make it more difficult for the company to make the new and the old versions in Everett, perhaps increasing the odds that the 777X would be assembled elsewhere.

Monroe also wonders about where Boeing would build the upgraded jet's mostly composite wings, which could be as long as 233 feet tip-to-tip, about 21 feet longer than the wing on the popular 777-300ER. If Boeing builds the 777X wings in house, that would require a new manufacturing plant as well as a way to move the wings from fabrication to final assembly.

If the wing halves are too long to travel by highway, air or rail, the wing facility would have to be close to the main assembly plant in Everett - or, perhaps, Charleston, S.C.

Charleston may be a long shot because Boeing would have to build a new assembly line there. But Charleston does have some appeal because Boeing already builds the largest number of composite assemblies in Charleston, the work force is nonunion and the company has an agreement to buy 320 acres of open land near the plant.

Washington's governor says he will do everything possible to make sure the state doesn't lose the work.
"I am committed to doing everything in my power to ensure this airplane and as many of its component parts as possible are assembled and manufactured in Washington state," Inslee said in a written statement.