New Dreamliner Headache: Parking Space

Christine Negroni
Boeing's 787 on its test flight
Source: The Boeing Comapany | Flickr

With the Federal Aviation Administration's grounding of the 787 Dreamliner fleet in its fifth week, Boeing now faces a problem of where to store the airplanes that continue to roll off the assembly line at its giant factory 30 miles north of Seattle.

Boeing, reluctant to shut down its production lines at Everett, Wash., and at a factory in Charleston, S.C., is producing 787s at a rate of slightly more than one a week. At the time the fleet was grounded, 50 Dreamliners were in service.

"We have adequate space today in Everett to accommodate our production airplanes," Marc Birtel, a spokesman for Boeing, said in an e-mail, "and we won't speculate publicly on limitations in the future."

But people familiar with Boeing's plans say two of the nation's largest commercial airplane storage companies have been asked by Boeing for space to park other models of airplanes that for one reason or another cannot be delivered immediately to customers.

Since the 787 needs special F.A.A. permission to fly, these people said Boeing is trying to make room for the Dreamliners.

When Mary Kirby, the editor of an aviation magazine, attended an industry conference in Washington last week, she could not resist taking a drive by Paine Field in Everett.

She said she was shocked at what she saw: "Parked Boeing 787s are everywhere."

Two likely storage destinations for planes are Pratt & Whitney's Southern CaliforniaAviation in Victorville, Calif., and Marana Aerospace Solutions in Marana, Ariz. The Victorville location has space for 330 airplanes, according to Leo Makowski, a spokesman for Pratt & Whitney. Only about half of the space is occupied, he said.

About 200 airplanes could be kept at Marana Aerospace Solutions, said Joyce Johnson-Miller, senior managing director of Relativity Capital, which owns the company. Ms. Johnson-Miller would not say whether Boeing was sending its airplanes as a result of the Dreamliner grounding. But it is not uncommon for new airplanes to be parked at the facility when there is a delay in taking possession of a new airplane, Ms. Johnson-Miller said. Marana has had relationships with Boeing in the past, she said, "and we'll continue to work with them in any way we can."

The F.A.A.'s emergency airworthiness directive, issued on Jan. 16, did not specify how long the 787 would be prohibited from flying. But a growing consensus suggests it will be many months before the plane will fly again. Decisions will depend on what safety investigators learn about the cause of smoke and fire incidents in the battery compartments of two Japanese Dreamliners on Jan. 7 and Jan. 16.

Still, production of the 787 is continuing at the same pace at both plants, Boeing executives say. Stopping or even slowing the assembly lines would be very difficult and costly because the aircraft's attenuated supply chain draws on parts manufactured all over the world. The engines are built in the United Kingdom, the fuselage in Italy, and various parts of the wing are constructed in Korea, Australia and Japan.

"You cannot stop factories all over the world from production," said Yossi Sheffi, a professor of engineering systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of its center for transportation and logistics. "But everything in the end has capacity. The next step is to keep the suppliers manufacturing but not send the parts, but how many wings can Mitsubishi keep in its factory?"

Dreamlifters, modified wide-body 747s that are used to transport large sections of the 787 from suppliers to Boeing's assembly plants, continue to arrive at Snohomish County Airport Paine Field, said Matt Cawby, an aviation reporter who spends his days observing activity at Boeing and producing a daily log of what goes on. His vantage point is across a field from the flight line, an L-shaped row of spaces on two sides of the airplane delivery center.

"Since the grounding they've run out of room on the flight line, and they put five on airport property," Mr. Cawby, 56, said of the Dreamliner. "I expect to see more. They're coming out of the factory and they've got to go somewhere."

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The Everett factory, which is 472 million cubic feet, is on the north side of the airport. Boeing would not say how many airplanes could be parked on its own property, but Mr. Cawby said he had counted 15 Dreamliners and that all the spaces on the flight line were taken. In addition, the company leases 22 acres at Paine Field where another 16 airplanes are parked, according to Dave Waggoner, the airport manager.

Some of those Dreamliners are positioned on a runway previously used for general aviation. Last week, a pilot calling the fixed base operator at Paine Field was reminded to heed the runway closure notice because "all the 787s are piled up on there, they just keep stacking them up."

Boeing opened a 1.2-million-square-foot assembly plant at the Charleston International Airport in July 2011, and the first Dreamliner built there rolled out in April 2012. Since then, it has produced eight airplanes, and four were delivered to customers before the grounding. Mr. Birtel, the Boeing spokesman, said the South Carolina flight line had seven stalls and some other space where it could accommodate the four planes remaining as well as aircraft now being built.

Professor Sheffi of M.I.T. said of Boeing's predicament: "It's a bear. Those guys, they got hit with something. This is so unique because of the size of the product and the fact that you have an airplane that cannot fly."