Mesa officials said Thursday they will explore offering Williams Gateway Airport as a location for a new Boeing aircraft manufacturing plant that could potentially bring thousands of jobs to the East Valley.
Although discussions are very preliminary, city officials said the former U.S. Air Force base in southeast Mesa may offer what the aerospace giant needs for the assembly of its next-generation 7E7 airliner.
No specific job estimate for such a plant was available Thursday, but such plants normally employ several thousand workers. Two Boeing plants already in Mesa collectively employ 4,300 people.
Boeing engineers are drawing up plans for the super-efficient, mid-size airliner that would be 20 percent cheaper to operate than existing airplanes of its size. Company officials said they will publish their requirements for manufacturing the airplane in about a month and invite proposals from communities interested in hosting the plant. A decision on the assembly site is expected by the end of this year.
“We are very bullish on Williams Gateway and the assets if offers,” said Richard Mulligan, Mesa's economic development director. “Given the opportunity to compete for anything of that magnitude, that is something we would aggressively pursue.”
The airport is owned and operated under an agreement between Mesa, Gilbert, Queen Creek and the Gila River Indian Community. Mulligan cautioned, however, that Boeing has not yet stated its requirements, and therefore it's too early to know if Williams would qualify.
The 7E7 program figures to be highly sought-after prize if the company decides to proceed. Political leaders in the Seattle area are pushing Boeing hard to assemble the plane there, noting that assembly of all Boeing commercial planes except those inherited from McDonnell Douglas have been in the Puget Sound region.
At a teleconference earlier this week, Mike Bair, head of the 7E7 program, said the assembly plant could go overseas. But he said the Seattle region would be given consideration.
“We'll most likely sit down with local officials (in Seattle) first before we go anywhere else," Bair said. "We'll also have a relatively short list of other potential sites."
Bob Watt, vice president for government and community affairs, said the competition will take place "on a level playing field . . . This decision will be made in a fair and open process."
Mayor Keno Hawker also said Mesa would be seriously interested in the project.
“Our relationship with Boeing has been excellent with the Apache (attack helicopter) assembly plant,” he said. “I'm sure we would take a serious look at it.”
With vacant land available on the Williams property and with more acreage available at the General Motors Proving Ground northeast of the airport, the area would offer plenty of land and infrastructure, Hawker said.
Mulligan said Williams doesn't have sufficient hangar and production buildings available for such a venture, and a new plant would probably have to be built.
In 1991, Arizona officials proposed Williams as the site for an assembly plant for a giant commercial airliner proposed by McDonnell Douglas Corp. called the MD-12, offering incentives valued at more than $500 million. Mesa was among the nine finalists for the plant, but McDonnell Douglas dropped the project because of its high development costs and an inability to find partners.
McDonnell Douglas did set up a program at Williams in 1996 to upgrade training aircraft for the U.S. Air Force. That program was inherited by Boeing when the two aerospace contractors merged in 1997.
Boeing's biggest operation in Mesa is the Apache assembly plant near Falcon Field, Mesa's municipal airport, which makes the powerful attack helicopter for the U.S. Army and foreign customers.
Wherever the 7E7 plane is assembled, the percentage of foreign parts is likely to be higher than on previous Boeing planes, and the percentage produced by outside vendors may also increase, Bair said.
Boeing developed the 7E7 program after the company's airline customers threw cold water on the company's plans to build the Sonic Cruiser, a high-speed airliner designed for long-range flights. Airlines said they are more interested in a super-efficient plane that would burn less fuel while flying at the same speed as existing airliners.
The 7E7 will make use of modern high-efficiency engines, lightweight composite materials, more advanced avionics and improved aerodynamics to achieve the fuel savings, said Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter. The twin-aisle plane will carry 200 to 220 passengers, about the size of the Boeing 767.
After business decisions such as the assembly site are made, the company expects to decide by the end of this year if the plane will be offered for sale, Gunter said. If sufficient orders are received, the program will be officially launched, possibly by the end of next year, she said.