As work begins on 1,000th 767, what is the airplane's future?



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Posted on September 7, 2010 at 10:23 AM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 7 at 5:56 PM

EVERETT, Wash. - Boeing's 767 has been around for 30 years. When it took to the skies in the early 1980s, it was developed alongside the smaller Renton-built 757.

The 757 has been out of production for years, yet the 767 assembly line keeps running. Can it keep going?

The obvious future of the 767 is with the U.S. Air Force as an aerial refueling tanker. Boeing is hoping that the Air Force will keep to its schedule, and by mid-November pronounce the company as the winner of a $45 billion contract.

Boeing is pitted against the parent company of Airbus in its bid to provide 767s that would refuel the nation's fleet of fighters and transports now spread around the globe. A win would virtually guarantee 767 production for another 20 years.

But what if Boeing doesn't win? Does the 767 still have a future?

Today, employees in Everett began drilling and riveting together the forward left spar, one of the key structural parts of the wing. This is considered the start of assembly and this particular wing is for Boeing's 1,000th 767. The plane is for Japan's All Nippon Airways.

With more than two-and-a-half years of delays in getting its hands on the 787 Dreamliners it's ordered, Boeing's been backfilling ANA's fleet with more 767s. A few years ago, before the 787 troubles began, the 767 line was considered a likely candidate for closure if the company had to finally throw in the towel on the long drawn-out tanker saga.

But the 767 has proven to be a popular airplane as a freighter, flying packages and other goodies around the globe.

"UPS has been a great and long-time customer for us," says Kim Pastega, now two weeks into her job as the new vice president and general manager of the 767 program. She's also the deputy program manager for the Air Force tanker program. In her previous job, Pastega was in charge of the 777 freighter program.

"And then we have several customers who are also purchasing passenger airplanes," she said.
If new orders stopped now, Boeing still has 54 767s left to build. That would take several years at the current rate. But the 767 has proved resilient despite forecasts of its demise.

As a cargo jet, the 767 provides a competition against the Airbus 330 freighter, especially since any 787 freighter would be years away.

Boeing's also investing in changes to its giant Everett factory to move the 767 to a new spot. The company wants to use the current 767 assembly line to crank up production of all those Dreamliners the company has left to deliver. This so-called "surge line" will eventually move to Boeing's new 787 production facility outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

In the meantime, Boeing is constructing a new spot for the 767, which includes cutting a new door into the back of the building, and cutting off a corner to tow 767s around the world's biggest building and to the flightline.