|Originally published December 29, 2014 at 8:43 PM | Page modified December 30, 2014 at 8:07 AM|
Boeing bullish, dismisses doubters, as record year ends After beating Airbus in jetliner deliveries again this year, Boeing looks to ramp up production at Renton, predicts abundant job openings in the years ahead, and dismisses worries raised by analysts.
By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times
Machinists Adam Fobes, front, and Andy Lee
insulate ribs in a 737 wing . The company has plans to boost Renton production from 42 planes a month to 52
As a record production year winds down at Boeing, executives shrug off analysts’ worries about a possible downturn and express full confidence in busy years ahead for Washington state’s aerospace industry.
With massive production hikes planned and a wave of worker retirements on the horizon, Pat Shanahan, Boeing vice president in charge of airplane programs, said the company expects to hire 20,000 to 30,000 people here through the end of this decade.
At the same time, Boeing is making big investments in new automation equipment that promises to transform the nature of blue-collar production jobs for those future hires.
Inside the Renton 737 jet assembly plant, where two assembly lines each pump out 21 airplanes every month, construction crews are installing the foundation for a third — the new 737 MAX line that will begin production in 2015.
Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times
Gary Laws, a team-lead mechanic who works at Boeing’s 737 wing-assembly facility in Renton, says an automated fastener machine has transformed his job.
On a tour this month, Shanahan predicted the Renton plant won’t miss a beat executing Boeing’s ambitious plan: “Going to 52 a month, introducing the MAX and changing our manufacturing process, all simultaneously.”
In the adjacent 737 wing facility, a shiny, new 25-foot-tall automated wing-panel fastening machine is being put through its paces to gain certification for initial operation in the spring.
Boeing is installing eight of these multimillion-dollar machines — designed and built by Electroimpact of Mukilteo — to make possible its plan for the astonishing Renton ramp-up to 52 jets per month, triple what it was a decade ago.
Meanwhile in Everett, construction is well along on two buildings that will house production of the Boeing 777X wings and fuselage. There, too, new advanced automated systems will pump out ever more airplanes.
Is everything awesome?
Airbus, equally bullish, has ramp-up plans parallel to Boeing’s.
Barry Eccleston, president of Airbus Americas, said he sees no waning of the prolonged aviation boom.
“We’re not seeing any weakness in the order book or any slowdown in the ordering rate,” Eccleston said.
The way both prime manufacturers paint a glowing picture of the industry’s prospects was lampooned at an industry conference earlier this year by Adam Pilarski, a respected industry veteran and senior vice president with consulting firm Avitas, who started his presentation by playing a “Lego Movie” song: “Everything is Awesome.”
“That’s exactly how Boeing feels,” Pilarski said in a year-end interview. “But airplane financiers respond: ‘What are you talking about?’?”
Wall Street analysts have repeatedly warned that production rates for the Airbus A330 and for Boeing’s 777 may need to be cut back severely before the end of the decade if the plane builders can’t find customers for the last of their current models as major upgrades are readied.
At the Airbus investor conference in London this month, executives presented slides showing the worst-case scenario of having to drop A330 production from 10 jets per month today to six per month for a couple of years.
That’s possible because Airbus has lots of empty delivery slots for the current model in the two years before it introduces a new A330neo in 2018.
A bridge to 777X
Boeing faces a similar issue with its star widebody jet, the 777, produced at a rate of 100 per year in Everett. The 777X, a major upgrade, is due in 2020.
Over the next six years, Boeing needs to win about 350 new orders for the current 777 to keep production humming until the 777X arrives.
In addition to these model-transition issues, Pilarski has a broader concern: “a reasonable chance of increased cancellations and deferrals” after years of airlines ordering more planes than the market requires.
This month, Air France-KLM management said it will defer five 777s due to be delivered in 2015 and 2016.
Pilarski puts the deferral down to “double-counting” of orders, meaning that legacy European flag carriers like Air France and the big new Middle Eastern carriers have all ordered planes that will compete with each other for passenger traffic.
In June, German flag carrier Lufthansa warned of an excess of airplanes on its long-haul routes due to “strong capacity growth by state-owned Gulf carriers.”
In Asia too, Pilarski said, low-cost startups and more established airlines have separately ordered hundreds of jets to chase the same passengers.
The combined order book of jets for the newcomer carriers and the older carriers is simply too many airplanes, he said.
“It’s all for the same traffic,” said Pilarski. “That cannot continue.”
While acknowledging that Boeing’s business is booming right now, he puts the chances of a production downturn by 2020 at 50-50.
“If I were Boeing, I’d be happy,” Pilarksi said. “But there may be some dark clouds on the horizon.”
Boeing executives brush aside such talk.
Vice president of marketing Randy Tinseth agreed that some legacy European flag carriers indeed find themselves “at a crossroads” because of competition from the Gulf carriers. But he said the company’s order book is so large and diverse — a backlog of more than 5,700 airplanes — that individual deferrals have minimal impact.
John Wojick, sales chief at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, insisted Boeing won’t have to “significantly change” the current 777 production rate.
Who’s No. 1?
Such optimism is backed by Boeing’s stellar manufacturing and sales performance in 2014.
“This year, Boeing is probably going to outdeliver Airbus in single-aisle jets for the first time since 2002, and we’re going to smash them on widebodies,” Wojick said. “It’s not even close.”
It’s true that by the end of this month, Boeing will have eclipsed Airbus in the number of airplanes delivered in 2014.
Heading to yet another all-time-high production year from local factories — and for the first time with significant added help from Boeing South Carolina — Boeing will beat Airbus in deliveries of larger widebody jets by a wide margin.
At the end of November, the U.S. jet maker had delivered 89 more widebody jets than Airbus this year.
According to Uresh Sheth’s blog that tracks 787 production, just before Christmas Boeing had delivered 108 Dreamliners this year, 31 of those built in South Carolina and 77 in Everett.
And as Wojick indicated, Boeing might close 2014 by building more narrowbody jets than Airbus — something it hasn’t achieved in a dozen years.
As of the end of November, Boeing had delivered 440 of its single-aisle 737s, compared with Airbus’s 436 of the rival A320.
This will be Boeing’s third consecutive year as the world’s leader in commercial jet manufacturing, after nine straight years of Airbus building more jets.
“We worked extremely hard ... to get back to being Number One in aviation,” said Wojick.
While Boeing wins big on production, the 2014 sales race is a closer call.
In early December, Boeing held a healthy lead in new orders, with 1,274 planes sold net of cancellations, to 1,094 planes for its European rival.
Airbus sales chief John Leahy could turn that around if he firms up some previously announced commitments in his typical year-end order rush.
But even then, Boeing will almost certainly come out ahead in the total value of 2014 sales, since a greater share of its new orders are expensive widebody jets.
Still, Airbus can point to significant strategic progress in 2014.
In the smaller-airplane segment, its A320neo family of jets continues to outsell Boeing’s 737 MAX family.
Eccleston said the Airbus advantage there is primarily due to its largest model, the A321neo, outselling the largest Boeing model, the 737 MAX 9.
Many analysts see the A321neo as the superior plane in this specific matchup. It carries more passengers and has better takeoff performance.
Boeing’s Wojick insisted that the vast majority of sales will go to the respective medium-sized variants — the 737 MAX 8 and the A320neo — and said Boeing wouldn’t be planning to build 52 jets a month if not totally confident in the MAX.
“This race has a long way to go,” said Wojick.
In large widebody jets, Boeing has been dominant for years. But in 2014, Airbus delivered its first A350 and launched the A330neo, key moves in challenging Boeing’s dominance.
Last month, Delta ordered 25 Airbus A330-900neos for its transatlantic routes, a strong validation of Eccleston’s argument that the ultra-long-range 787 is “too much airplane” for such medium-range routes.
Pilarski said the cost-effective A330neo — an aircraft with an older design but new engines — has the potential to sell close to 1,000 units.
However, Airbus appears to have a problem with its largest A350, the A350-1000 model, designed to compete with the 777.
Though that model has sold poorly, Eccleston insisted that Airbus has no plans to revamp or stretch it.
That’s welcome news for Boeing and its 777X.
For Boeing, 2014 began with intense labor acrimony over the eight-year 777X contract extension that froze the pensions of workers in the Machinists union.
Management later announced the company would move thousands of engineering and defense jobs out of state, heightening the animosity.
Many of those job transfers haven’t happened yet. But through November, Boeing employment in the state dipped to 81,099, a drop of just over 900 jobs.
In addition to cuts through attrition, Boeing said 236 employees transferred to California as engineering support work was moved, and 410 others were laid off.
One consequence of the recent labor strife is likely to be a wave of retirements in coming years, especially at the end of 2018 — when the particularly generous 401(k) matches in the first two years of the 777X contract run out.
For all the hiring that Shanahan promises is ahead, plans to massively increase automation probably mean that not all of those retirees will be replaced.
By the end of the decade, there may be fewer Boeing blue-collar workers in Washington state than there are today, and the work they do could be very different.
Gary Laws, 40, who operates an automated fastener machine in the 737 wing-assembly facility in Renton, offers a glimpse at the shifting nature of manual work at Boeing.
Laws described how the automation already in place has made his job dramatically easier and better since he joined Boeing 19 years ago.
Back then, he said, the wing panels were held in huge fixtures several stories high, and most of the drilling and riveting was done by hand — work that was very hard on the body.
Today he sits at an operating console, deciding which parts are loaded and when, continuously monitoring the machine and the tasks that it performs.
When a drill bit breaks in the machine, he’s alert to the change in sound.
Laws is proud of his role in the extraordinary increase in the Renton site’s productivity.
Fueling the remarkable 737 rate increases, he and his workmates constantly come up with ways to sequence the work more efficiently.
He’s no longer paid to punch rivets.
“I’m paid to think and for my troubleshooting skills,” Laws said.
“I can wear a nice shirt to work.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org