WASHINGTON — Production of the Air Force’s KC-46 refueling tanker and the Navy’s P-8 maritime surveillance plane will stop as Boeing shuts down all facilities in the Seattle area amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Boeing plans to begin reducing production activity today and projects the suspension of such operations to begin on Wednesday, March 25, at sites across the Puget Sound area,” the company said in a statement on Monday.
A Boeing spokesman confirmed that the impacted area includes the facilities in Everett and Renton, where the KC-46 and P-8 are made, respectively.
“We plan to temporarily suspend all production operations, including those relating to P-8 and KC-46A, in the Puget Sound region,” the spokesman said. “We’re actively engaged with our defense customers to minimize any impacts on their missions. Certain non-production work for all commercial derivative aircraft programs, including for the KC-46 remote vision system enhancements, will continue being done by employees working remotely.”
The company is urging employees to telework if they can, but work on classified projects cannot be done on laptops, which could impact more sensitive elements of defense programs.
The production stoppage itself is perhaps an even more urgent challenge. Boeing’s Puget Sound facilities are best known for commercial airliner production, but the commercial-derivative aircraft it makes for the military —like the KC-46 and P-8 — are built on the same lines. Any pause in commercial production could put Boeing behind in delivering aircraft to the Air Force and Navy.
However, Boeing’s defense business will likely be able to make a quick recovery as long as the pause in production is not protracted, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.
“P-8, KC-46 and other Boeing defense production in the Puget Sound area is mostly low-volume, like around 1-2 per month,” he said. “So they should be able to recover over the course of the year, assuming the factory deep clean is successful and the pandemic threat turns a corner.”
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun characterized the temporary plant closures as a “necessary step” to protect employees in the wake of a state of emergency in Washington state.
"We continue to work closely with public health officials, and we’re in contact with our customers, suppliers and other stakeholders who are affected by this temporary suspension,” he said. “We regret the difficulty this will cause them, as well as our employees, but it’s vital to maintain health and safety for all those who support our products and services, and to assist in the national effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.”
The company will also continue to monitor U.S. government guidance on COVID-19 and conduct a deep cleaning of impacted sites during the two-week pause, Boeing said.
This story is developing. Check back on Defense News for more details.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.