The interconnectedness of the aviation industry has often been likened to a massive global chess game. A skilled player makes a move of one piece with deliberate consideration for all the moves to follow, always mindful of the larger picture at hand.
Boeing’s latest move across the global chess board lands in the heart of Texas at the site of the old Kelly Air Force Base in the city of San Antonio, Texas has quietly been growing as a secondary base to compliment the primary Everett 787 production line.
Boeing signed an agreement last July to fly the first eleven Dreamliners to San Antonio for refurbishment and modification following the flight test program.
An article on flightglobal.com earlier this week revealed that number has grown to “at least 20,” according to Keith Graf, an aerospace economic development official for Texas’s state government. Mr. Graf went on to say that, “the number may continue to rise.”
Flightblogger has confirmed with the Federal Aviation Administration that Boeing has filed for an extension of its production certificate to cover the San Antonio facility.
An FAA spokesman said in an email that the request is to permit Boeing “to refurbish 787 airplanes after flight testing and [make] changes needed to bring non-flight test airplanes into type certification configuration.”
In the short term, the growth of San Antionio as a base for 787 refurbishment and modifications draws a direct comparison to the way Airbus has used its secondary European sites to support A380 assembly. Just as Airbus uses its Hamburg facility for interior installation and rewiring of the superjumbo, Boeing is utilizing a secondary site for similar operations.
MUCH MORE BELOW THE FOLD
The Second Line Quandary
At a 2006 Paris press conference, Craig Saddler, the finance director for the 787 program, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying, "If we take the production rate up even higher - and this is part of our studies with our suppliers - we would probably have to set up a second production line."
At the time of that interview, Boeing was aiming to build 112 aircraft during the first 18 months of production. This projection has since proven unrealistic.
Boeing could potentially make up much ground on its original revised goal of 109 787s by the end of 2009 by adding this extra production capacity. However, the company must be able to operate one production line and supply chain successfully before trying any replication.
Until these issues are sorted out, a decision about a second production line is low on the list high priority tasks.
Though relegated to the long term planning category, the question becomes: Where does a second line go?
Boeing faces a space crunch in Everett. The six massive assembly buildings at Paine Field in Everett that make up the worlds largest building by volume and are all currently occupied:
-Buildings 40-21 and 22 make up the 747 line and will be in use to build the -8F and -8I for years to come.
-Building 40-23 is allocated for static and other testing.
-Building 40-24 is perhaps the best candidate to house a fresh 787 line. However, as the current home of the 767 line, if Boeing wins even part of the KC-X contract, the 767 will continue to be quite busy developing tankers for the US Air Force well into the next decade.
-Building 40-25 is occupied by the moving assembly line for the 777 program which will be in operation until at least 2020 as the program matures.
-Building 40-26 houses the current four station 787 line, which will eventually churn out 787s at a blistering pace of one every three days.
-Looking eastward, the Boeing parking lot is the only site for expansion, however, staff parking is already scarce at the Everett factory and any expansion would likely be met with cold shoulders.
The Future for San Antonio
With the request for the production certificate extension to the San Antonio facility, Boeing is clearly planning to do work on the 787 that is, “more than cosmetic or systems work. They are prepping to do structures work,” said Hans Weber, an expert in aviation certification and President of TECOP International, an aviation consulting firm.
Does the certificate open the door for a much larger operation such as the proposed 787 production line?
“Well, yes,” says Weber.
Depending on the size of the investment in the San Antonio site, why would Boeing shut down an operation after only those first 20 aircraft? Those working with the aircraft will have gained significant experience working with the 787; skills that by all appearances seem to be scarce with certain suppliers in the 787 program.
The current goings-on in San Antonio point to an even larger future role. The on-site workforce would reach 400, a number curiously that matches the peak workforce expected at Global Aeronautica in Charleston.
According to sources in Charleston, Boeing has even dispatched a large contingent from its San Antonio facility to assist with assembly operations at Global Aeronautica, which is responsible for assembly of the 787 center fuselage.
Global Aeronautica has required all the assistance it could get from Boeing, however, why dispatch staff from a site based around IDS (Integrated Defense Systems) operations and not BCA (Boeing Commercial Airplanes)? Giving San Antonio staff direct training on assembly operations at the bare minimum provides them a preview of those same duties that could find their way to Texas.
“A site with proficiency in maintenance and modifications could easily make the jump to jetliner completion and customization. And of course it would also be useful for any structures production that might migrate from its current source,” says Richard Aboulafia, Vice President of Analysis at the Teal Group.
Ultimately, there are a lot of reasons why jetliners end up being assembled where they are. Politics often finds its way into the mix.
“I can't think of anyone choosing to establish second assembly lines for other than political reasons,” adds Aboulafia. “McDonnell Douglas in China, Airbus narrow-bodies in France and Germany, Eurofighter and other fighter jet manufacturers breaking into export markets, etc.”
Aboulafia adds that Texas could add a lot to the 787 program:
“Nobody has done it for rational business or economic reasons. Of course, 787 assembly is meant to be tremendously lean, and Texas has skilled aerospace workers and business friendly politics. So I wouldn't rule it out completely.”
With the expanding role of the San Antonio facility, Boeing clearly sees Texas as a location ripe for cultivation and expansion upon its current commercial portfolio.
The decisions that are made now about the facility establish the groundwork for bigger things ahead. Texas is not only the early front runner to host a second 787 production line for the 787-3 or -10, but even more strategically, the facility is a potential bargaining chip for Boeing with the state of Washington when it comes time to decide the production site for the 737RS.
The chessboard is constantly changing, hosting manoeuvres that appear disconnected from one another. Another piece has advanced forward across the board, but only the player knows the reasons for their move.