Texas Plant Will Put Final Touch on 787s

When the first 11 787 Dreamliners roll out the doors of Boeing's Everett final assembly plant, they won't be ready to deliver to airline customers.

Instead, they'll fly to San Antonio, where a new crew of Boeing workers will put the final touches on the revolutionary airliners before they're ready for commercial service.

That word quietly came from Boeing Tuesday as it announced it will hire 400 workers at a San Antonio repair and modification facility to rewire, upgrade and refurbish the first planes off the assembly line.

Why not do the work in the Puget Sound area?

Boeing spokeswoman Yvonne Leach said the company doesn't have the room to accommodate the work here. And the jobs would be temporary anyway.

"They'll be contract workers. Their work will go away in a year," said Leach.

But in San Antonio, Boeing spokeswoman Deborah VanNierop told reporters there's a possibility the work could continue longer.

San Antonio was one of the final bidders four years ago in the contest to win Boeing's 787 final assembly plant. That city proposed a new site at the former Kelly Air Force Base on the west side of San Antonio, which already housed a complex of aircraft modification and repair facilities operated by aerospace contractors, including Boeing. Boeing has about 1,500 employees in San Antonio.

"This meets our long-term goal to get beyond doing only military work," Joe Krier, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, told the San Antonio Express-News.

Six of the first aircraft will be used as test planes. Before they can be turned over to their airline owners, they must be stripped of their test equipment, furnished with airline interiors and refurbished to meet new standards.

The rest of the 11 will require updates so they meet modifications Boeing will make after the series of flights with the test fleet, including to the software, the aircraft structure and the wiring.

Once the Federal Aviation Administration approves the plane in its final form, other changes will be incorporated on the Everett assembly line.

The Boeing spokeswoman said hiring the extra workers in Texas had no connection with its principal partners' failure to deliver the first major 787 subassemblies ready to be joined.

Boeing workers in Everett have had to install wiring and other equipment on the assembly line itself. Boeing has said that as it and its subcontractors become more familiar with the manufacturing process, the major assemblies should begin arriving ready for assembly.

When Boeing irons out its initial production snags, it hopes to produce a complete plane on the final assembly line in just three days. Its first 787 took 27 days to reach the stage where it could be rolled out in a debut ceremony Sunday. That plane still requires more work before it can make an initial flight in late August or early September.

Tom Wroblewski, president of Boeing's biggest union, Machinists District Local 751, said Boeing had told the union about its plans to do the completion work in San Antonio.

The company had promised the Machinists, he said, that no union worker would lose his or her job or be downgraded because of the work sent to Texas. Boeing also assured the union that the work would be shifted back to the Puget Sound region if capacity became available.

The union, which campaigned hard to win the 787 final assembly, has been displeased because many of the jobs generated by the Dreamliner are going to nonunion workers.

Two of Boeing's 787 partners, Vought and Alenia, located a plant in lightly unionized South Carolina to build major sections of the fuselage. And several supplier companies that located or expanded plants in Washington to serve the 787, including Toray Composites America in Pierce County, are not unionized.

Kelliher said the Machinists tried to organize Boeing's San Antonio workers about a decade ago but failed.

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John Gillie: 253-597-8663