As Boeing makes its latest push to complete testing and certification of its troubled 787 programme, the challenge of how it intends to fulfil more than 800 orders for the aircraft in a reasonable time is looming closer.
One increasingly likely possibility is to supplement the assembly line in Everett, Washington with a second line located in South Carolina, which could mark Boeing's first move to establish a manufacturing operation outside Washington.
But Washington state legislators see that prospect as more than just a break with local history. They see jobs and tax revenue at stake and are not sitting idly by while Boeing ponders options.
Snohomish County council member Brian Sullivan - whose constituency includes the city of Everett - state senator Paul Shin and several other legislators are drafting a law that would allow the state to become a "port district". Sullivan says: "All the corporations are throwing in our face that they can go to South Carolina and rent property for $100 a year and Washington can't do that. But there is an exemption in the state law that allows port districts to do that. I'm proposing a state-wide port district or a county-wide port district to at least allow us to compete on the local level as with South Carolina."
One of the major goals of the legislation is to keep Boeing in Washington, something that is no longer a foregone conclusion since Boeing moved its headquarters to Chicago and began employing a business model that involves outsourcing large "sections and tooling and everything else", says Sullivan.
He also says the state no longer has "the comfort zone" of knowing that Boeing leadership were born and raised in Washington and hold a specific sense of community and loyalty to the region: "What we need to do is start competing with the same tools as other states and counties compete with and we have the added value that people want to live here because our quality of life is so good."
Boeing says it is aware of efforts by legislators in Olympia, the state capital, to pass measures that would help the entire state and business community compete and thrive: "We think that is a good thing not only for Boeing but for all businesses."
There could be a legal route to stopping a 787 move to South Carolina. Boeing's machinists' union - whose strike last year, partly over the company's outsourcing policy, proved especially disruptive - is examining the wording of 2003 legislation that provided a multi-billion dollar tax-break package to Boeing and other Washington companies after the airframer agreed to establish a 787 final assembly plant in Everett. Boeing, for its part, insists that law does not prevent it adding extra 787 capacity either elsewhere in Washington or outside the state.
But Sullivan is taking a long-term view, beyond the prospect of a 787 assembly line in South Carolina: "The point is Boeing is the gorilla in the room and nobody wants to look at it. If we threaten to sue them and make them pay back taxes, we may actually lose the whole ball of wax. That would be my concern".
Rather than litigate the issue, he says, Washington state needs to put measures in place to ensure it can compete for Boeing's business when it comes to decide where to build the successor to its successful 737 series.
"The real battle may not be the second line for the 787. The real battle will be how to keep the [Renton-built] 737 in Washington state," says Sullivan.
"We know that the ageing plant in Renton, on Lake Washington, is a billion dollar piece of property they can redevelop and make money on," Sullivan adds. He refers to the successor to the 737 - which has not been detailed by Boeing - as the "mini-Dreamliner".
Source: Flight International