I wouldn't want to fly on an airplane built by a disgruntled workforce, let alone buy one, would you? And given the endless delays and production problems wrought on the 787 program through Boeing's ill-fated union-busting outsourcing scheme, it's hard to imagine an airline or leasing company making long-term business plans around on-time delivery of a 777X built by an inexperienced, low-wage workforce in South Carolina or Alabama.
That is just part of the dilemma facing Boeing executives as they weigh the risks of divorcing themselves from the most skilled and productive aerospace workforce in the world, both at its own Puget Sound facilities and at the supporting businesses that have grown up around them. Having already damaged its reputation with the 787 debacle, Boeing will have a harder time coaxing airlines to jump to the front of the line with billions of dollars of orders for a non-Puget-Sound-built 777X that may miss its delivery date by a year or three (and then occasionally catch fire once they're in service).
How many orders would mere uncertainty lose Boeing to Airbus and other competitors? How much of an extra discount will Boeing need to offer customers in order to allay their well-founded fears that an all new aircraft built by an all new workforce at an all new facility may run far behind schedule and way below the quality standards set by unionized Machinists? Is it even possible to quantify the blow to Boeing's long-term prospects should the 777X prove a repeat (or worse) of the 787 debacle?
These are questions Boeing will presumably ask itself before deciding where to site 777X production. And if executives answer these questions honestly, the rational choice is Everett. If Boeing is acting rationally, this threat to move production out of state is just that—a threat. A rational Boeing would ultimately come back to the bargaining table and negotiate labor peace with the Machinists (that's what it really needs—a long-term contract that precludes the threat of a strike) that would keep production in the region. A rational Boeing knows that the advantages offered by other sites simply cannot offset the investment in human and physical infrastructure it has already made here.
The problem is, there is no guarantee that Boeing will act rationally. That is one of the major myths about our capitalist system: that given timely and accurate information, participants will pursue their own rational self-interest. But they don't always. Because they're human.
Boeing's own analysis, revealed in subpoenaed documents, determined that moving the second 787 assembly line to South Carolina would introduce further production delays, dilute workforce skills, and result in a "negative impact to 787 program profitability"—specifically, $1.5 billion in additional costs up front, plus reduced earnings on one-third of the 787 backlog, according to Boeing's own internal numbers.
Yet they moved the line there anyway, because the goal was never as much to speed up production and improve profitability as it was to "create long-term change in union leverage." Right at the top of a document dated April 27, 2009, Boeing clearly states its strategy and purpose: "Establishing long-term manufacturing capability outside of the Puget Sound, starting with a second 787 final assembly line and progressing to the next new airplane program."
Turns out management far underestimated the negative impact. Good thing for Boeing that Everett's unionized Machinists were there to pick up the slack.
And now Boeing wants to repeat this debacle with an all new 777X? Maybe.
And maybe once Boeing abandons this region, a more rational Airbus will swoop in to capitalize on the human capital Boeing leaves behind? After all, if Airbus can currently out-compete Boeing with aircraft built by benefit-pampered French workers, just imagine what Airbus could do with the best aerospace workforce in the world.