Everett's 7E7 win brings joy, relief
Seattle Times staff reporters
Kurtis Willden called it a "scary celebration." The 44-year-old engineer said his team has been running on adrenaline the past nine months while developing new manufacturing techniques that Boeing will use for the plane.
It was great to learn that the board of directors had agreed to go forward with the next-generation jet, and that Everett had won the job of building it. But now the pressure would really be on, Willden said, to deliver on the high expectations Boeing has for the 7E7.
"People are going to show up and realize every minute counts, and you can't waste time," he said. "We've got to get to the point, get things done and move ahead. Most engineers I know are up to it."
Boeing commercial airplanes CEO Alan Mulally likewise urged the crowd to pause and celebrate its accomplishments, but gear up for the challenges ahead.
"Savor this moment," he said.
If it was a scary celebration for Boeing workers, it was a nerve-wracking past eight months for the entire Puget Sound region.
Boeing's decision last spring to kick off a nationwide search for a 7E7 plant site raised fears that the company, after moving its headquarters to Chicago in 2001, would slowly move its airplanes out as well, threatening the region's biggest industry.
The purpose of the elaborately staged 2 p.m. event at Seattle's Washington State Convention and Trade Center yesterday was to tell employees the outcome of two critical votes in Chicago on Monday by Boeing's board of directors: Whether to move ahead with the 7E7 and, if so, where.
Local political leaders heard the news just hours before the event.
A slickly produced video of Boeing's airplane history warmed up the crowd, followed by an energetic pep talk from Mulally.
Harry Stonecipher, the longtime Boeing board member who recently came out of retirement to take over as CEO after Phil Condit resigned, then took the podium to deliver the news.
The first few rows of executives stood and greeted Stonecipher with a rousing cheer, but the bulk of the workers remained seated, delivering a weak smattering of applause.
Many local workers harbor resentment toward Stonecipher, who joined Boeing after the company merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997; engineers widely blame him for their strike in late 2000.
But Stonecipher triggered a jubilant outburst of emotion when he confirmed the board had given the green light to offer the 7E7 to customers and to build it in Everett.
"The decision of the board on both items was unanimous," Stonecipher said.
The board's conversation lasted four hours, he said, but "I think we could have gotten a vote to go ahead with the plane in the first 10 minutes."
Rather than question the business case outlined by Mulally and Mike Bair, the 7E7 program manager, the board eagerly asked for technical details about the plane and its capabilities.
"It wasn't a debate," said Stonecipher. "It was interest."
Boeing believes there is a market for 3,500 jets over the next 20 years in the 7E7's size category worth $400 billion, Bair said yesterday — an increase from previous forecasts of 2,000 to 3,000 planes.
Mulally said he expects 7E7 order announcements "sooner rather than later."
Boeing has been courting Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways to order 7E7s, but both carriers said from Japan they need more time to study the airplane.
Amid the hoopla, Mulally reiterated Boeing's "Working Together" slogan dating to the launch of the 777 in the early 1990s. He proclaimed that the new 7E7 era meant "putting people first, starting with today."
But when asked to sketch the likely jobs trend at the news conference that followed, Mulally responded obliquely, saying that the industry outlook and production levels "look pretty stable." He said that he expects the plants in Everett and Renton to continue to make productivity gains "every year forever."
He also restated that alongside the new 7E7 jet program, a new Boeing is emerging that focuses on overall aircraft design and final assembly and that will retain, in terms of the traditional work of making component parts, "only a few parts of subassemblies that are critical to us."
So while the new 7E7 program will certainly mean job security for thousands of Everett-based engineers in the near term and around 1,000 workers in the long term, that long-term shift could mean continued outsourcing of parts work on existing programs.
"I don't see that many jobs coming to Everett or the region to make up for all the people laid off," said Rick Herrmann, a 36-year veteran machinist at the Everett plant. "It'll just mean a few less people being laid off."
Union leaders present for the announcement, while buoyant about the potential impact of winning the 7E7, nevertheless hoped at least for a stabilizing of the work force.
"I don't think it means the end (of layoffs)," said Charles Bofferding, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. "It means we're closer to the bottom. We are in the turnaround and this accelerates the turnaround."
"It's hard to tell (the immediate impact on jobs). We won't enter production for two or three years," said a beaming Mark Blondin, district president of Local 751 of the International Association of Machinists. "But I talked with Boeing. They said it's going to be stable."
Both unions have contracts up for renegotiation in 2005, just as the 7E7 will enter a crucial development phase. Both union leaders said they hope to work with Boeing from a fresh starting point now that it has shown some commitment to its local work force.
"We're going to do everything to make sure working together really happens," said Bofferding, identifying outsourcing as a continuing concern.
"Labor relations is a two-way street," said Blondin, "We'll see how they work from here on out. We want to be part of the success."
Away from the convention center, Boeing worker reaction was even more skeptical.
One 25-year veteran quality-assurance lead on the 747 line, reached on the factory floor early yesterday, felt that Everett had certainly been saved from rapid obsolescence.
"We had visions of this factory here becoming the biggest supermall in the world," the worker said. "Maybe we'll keep building airplanes here. That's a good thing."
At its peak in 1997, Boeing employed 30,000 in Everett. The current headcount is less than 18,000.
The 7E7 news gave engineers more reason for hope than it did factory floor workers.
"Not all those jobs are coming back; it's a possibility that none of them will come back," said Thomas Carty, a 30-year Boeing engineer who was in the Convention Center for the announcement. "But most people are now going to be optimistic."
Seattle Times reporter Luke Timmerman contributed to this report.
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