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Boeing 787 Flies While South Carolinians Swoon

The folks in Charleston are over the moon about their entry into the world of high-tech manufacturing, embodied in the new Boeing 787.
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How Fast Between "Build it..." and "They Will Come?" In the case South Carolina and Boeing, pretty darn fast. In the movie "Field of Dreams," it was an Iowa cornfield. In North Charleston, it was a Carolina swamp. Either way, from saw grass to million-plus square foot airline manufacturing and assembly plant, took just two years. Last week, the first shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner produced outside of Washington State took its first flight.

The airplane is the one of seven bound for Air India, but first it needs a few more flight tests and a paint job. But even with those finishing touches remaining to be completed, the folks in Charleston are over the moon about their entry into the world of high-tech manufacturing. They made that clear the day the plane was rolled out of the hangar to the cheers of employees, politicians and members of the community.

In the broiling sun, the guests waved their souvenir marshaling wands -- a symbolic gesture that reinforced the theme that only the combined efforts of many brought this airplane to town.

Mayor Bill Collins of nearby Summerville told me many of the Boeing workers live in his town. Like so many other civic leaders, Mayor Collins looks at the Dreamliner and sees more than an airplane, he sees a great big economic engine powering a rebirth in South Carolina.

"This is an entirely different level, we are playing at the global level", said Sean Bennett, a financial adviser and volunteer with the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, who participated in the effort to woo Boeing aircraft manufacturing out of the pacific northwest.

Last month, I was one of several dozen journalists taken on a tour of the factory. It wasn't all about drill stacks and nitrogen systems.

At the three-story delivery center, where airlines like Air India can set up temporary offices until they actually take possession of their Dreamliners, it dawned on me just how far the economic benefits flow: to the hotels and restaurants and shops providing services to the visitors to
the caterers, suppliers and transportation services the delivery center will need. And just as significantly, the companies that provide components for the airliner may decide there is value in moving their own companies to South Carolina.

This has given the development folks a new way of looking at the future of the state. Sure, they'll keep pursuing businesses to come to the Charleston area, but as Claire Gibbons of the Development Alliance told me, "It's not about quantity now. It's about bringing quality employers and higher wages."

Of course, South Carolina's gain is not without a loss in Puget Sound, Boeing's traditional home. Boeing continues to insist it will not cut jobs there, that the Charleston plant is an expansion of jobs. But you'd have to be named Pollyanna not to connect years of labor unrest by members of the International Association of Machinists with what was, in 2009, a stunning decision to begin assembling airliners anywhere outside of the Seattle area.

In documents made public during an attempt by the National Labor Relations Board to stop the move of Boeing manufacturing to South Carolina, it was revealed just how much of a role work stoppages in Washington had in convincing Boeing to consider opening a plant in a right-to-work state.

After a five-month strike by Machinsts in 2008, the board of directors at Boeing heard arguments that creating a factory in South Carolina would create a non-union environment, lower labor costs and avoid the "current hostage situation."

The NLRB dropped the case after Boeing and the IAM quickly negotiated a contract for the Washington State-based workers. It was a Christmas present for Boeing and for South Carolina and it may be the gift that keeps on giving, if the Charleston plant expands as currently outlined.

As we walked past fuselage sections and wire running stations and viewed the adorably nicknamed "daughter of all tooling towers" -- presumably the mother is arched over the Queen of the Sky in Everett -- we were told repeatedly that the goal of advancing from 3.5 Dreamliners per month to six was merely a stop along the way to 10 per month.

In those documents the NLRB got its hands on, there was discussion of the plant's role in "the next new airplane program."

All of this is to explain why South Carolinians are entering the summer in which they will deliver their first airplane to a customer in a state of ecstasy. The see that they are on the rise, that Boeing has bestowed on them an opportunity to show the world just what accomplishments they are capable of achieving.