- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

EVERETT, Wash. It isn't hard to find a worker in the cavernous Boeing 747 plant who has been making airplanes pretty much the same way for as long as 30 years.

But a few months ago, executives in charge of the 747 program decided to try something radical: moving the airplane.

Using some low-cost, low-tech gadgets, many dreamed up by Boeing workers, the aerospace giant has created what may be the world's slowest and least sophisticated moving production line.

The plan is unconventional, but the impetus is not. Boeing executives and industry analysts agree that if the wide-body 747 wants to survive against European competitor Airbus' planned A380, the company needs to find a way to make it cheaper and more efficiently.

"Our customers were telling us the airplane costs too much," said Jack Jones, director of manufacturing for the 747 program.

So far, he said, the moving line is still employing as many workers and costing about as much as before, when the plane stayed put while workers spent up to two hours per shift walking around the plant gathering tools, parts and other materials.

But eventually, Mr. Jones said, the plan will make 747 production much more efficient, potentially rescuing the aging wide-body airplane line from drifting into obscurity.

Boeing had transitioned its narrow-body 717 and 737 plants to a moving production line when it decided to tackle the 747's system, which had been virtually unchanged for more than three decades. At first, even Mr. Jones was skeptical. His reaction: "Yeah, right."

First and foremost was the challenge of actually moving the massive airplane, which is more than 200 feet long and has a tail height of more than 60 feet.

Second, the company was intent on coming up with a low-cost plan quickly the company gave itself just six months to get moving.

Third, the company faced the challenge of persuading more than 2,000 workers to change everything they had been doing for decades and, in some cases, that their fathers or mothers did before them.

"It was a very uncomfortable position for several of us," he said.

Mr. Jones quickly decided the only way to make it work was to ask workers for ideas. A couple came up with a simple system for pulling the airplane that cost just about $10,000 millions less than the 737's moving-line system.

Other workers offered different low-cost approaches, mostly using parts already available. A system of small wheel trolleys lets a line of tubes move with the airplane, and scaffolding is crafted from already-existing parts. Workers also came up with a plan for moving the engines in line with the moving airplane, saving the costly effort of moving the engine by crane across the building.

"If this had been a management [idea], number one, we would've failed miserably; and, number two, we'd still be out there trying to figure out how to move the airplane," Mr. Jones said.

Machinist Jack Hake said the plan encouraged workers to take responsibility for the project.

But midway through the transition, the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred. A week later, facing a severe downturn in the airline industry, Boeing was forced to scale back production considerably and began laying off 30,000 workers.

If anything, Mr. Jones said the loss of business "helped win over employees." As 747 orders dropped off, he said, workers realized they needed to get the price down if the plane was going to survive.

Still, as Boeing tries to reverse the 747's fortunes, some analysts say the economic fallout of the attacks might have sealed the plane's fate.

"Its hope for a few good years depended on a return to prosperity in Asia," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. "I think, thanks to the downturn, the 747 could go away quicker than expected."

He said he believes nothing short of a wholesale modernization will save the 747. Boeing for now has canceled plans to build the 747X, a larger plane that would have competed directly with the A380.

"It's an old plane and it's hard to compete with an old plane against a brand-new one," said Paul Nisbet, an analyst with JSA Research.

Boeing is competing against its own 777, which can fly similar distances and hold almost as many passengers, Mr. Aboulafia said. If Boeing's plan to build a Sonic Cruiser comes to fruition, he doubts there will be any room for the 747.

After snagging a record 124 orders for the 747 in 1990, Boeing had orders for 16 last year. This year, Boeing has announced one.

Yesterday, Boeing said it suffered its first unprofitable quarter since 1997, losing $1.25 billion ($1.54 a share) in the first three months of 2002, owing to a whopping accounting charge. A year earlier, Boeing posted profits of $1.24 billion ($1.45).

But, with plans to introduce a longer-range 747, Boeing believes there is still a market for the plane.

"We think there's a lot of future in this airplane," said Bill Droppelman, 747 brand manager.

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