Air cargo carrier FedEx Express (FX, Memphis Int'l) is to take over the lease of Boeing's Dreamlifter Operations Centre at Paine Field, Everett, quashing any hopes of a return of the B787 Dreamliner production to Washington State.

According to a document reviewed by The Seattle Times, the parties are close to finalising the transfer of the lease, a consequence of Boeing’s decision in October 2020 to cease assembly of the B787 in Everett.

Although Boeing had moved the oversight of its Dreamliner operations and maintenance to Charleston, SC, three years ago, it still used its facility at Paine Field to assemble big sections of the B787 manufactured by major partners around the globe using its giant B747-400(LCF) Dreamlifter freighters. However, since February 2021, they no longer ferry to Everett the B787’s horizontal tail made in Italy, wings made in Japan, forward fuselages made in Wichita, Kansas, and aft and centre fuselages made in North Charleston. This follows Boeing's decision in October last year to move the B787 assembly to North Charleston, to reduce costs as it faces the fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lease negotiations document indicated the transfer was expected to be completed this summer, although FedEx told Boeing it would take time after the lease was transferred to get its cargo flights up and running.

To sweeten the deal, even though FedEx should have taken over the lease by November 1, Boeing has agreed to make a USD1.8 million bond payment due on that date as part of the annual rent.

In addition to abandoning the Dreamlifter Centre, Boeing has already transferred to South Carolina all the tooling for making the smallest Dreamliner model, the B787-8. A Boeing spokesperson said this was done following the end of local B787 final assembly work in February. Until then, the North Charleston assembly plant had built only the larger B787-9s and B787-10s.

Boeing insisted these developments should not be interpreted as a disinvestment in the local community. “Boeing is committed to the Puget Sound region,” said the spokesperson. “We have a larger workforce and operational footprint here than anywhere else in the world, and we have spent billions of dollars investing in long-term infrastructure.”

The fleet of four Dreamlifters (greatly modified versions of the B747-400) would still be seen at Paine Field three times a month when they would transport the forward fuselage section of the B767 from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita to Everett, as they have done since December 2019.

Meanwhile, the lease deal was sure to spell a much busier flight schedule out of Paine Field as FedEx cargo flights would join new commercial passenger flights by Alaska Airlines (AS, Seattle Tacoma Int'l) and United Airlines (UA, Chicago O'Hare), as well as Boeing’s delivery and test flights of newly built jets.

In response to the news, Boeing reiterated a statement by Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith that the company was “reviewing every piece of real estate, every building, every lease, every warehouse, every site,” with a goal of shrinking the company’s total real estate by 30%.

FedEx declined to comment on the specifics of the project until it was finalised, adding the company was continuously evaluating opportunities to enhance its service. The company currently flies its regional air operations out of Seattle Tacoma Int'l. Airport spokesperson Perry Cooper said the cargo carrier operated an average of seven flights per day in and out of that airport, with fewer on weekends.