Updated Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 05:01 PM
Fourteen months ago, Nikolay Konstantinov worked at a discount tire store. Now he helps bolt together the rear and center sections of massive 777 jets.
"This is a lot more interesting than slugging around tires," said Konstantinov, 29, the giant fuselage looming just over his head in Boeing's Everett factory. "My girlfriend thinks this is really cool."
Working at Boeing, he added, "people that take it seriously can achieve a lot."
Nearby, inside the passenger cabin of a nearly completed Dreamliner, Ralph Williams Jr. showed three younger employees how to mend some minor scratches, and gave them an equally upbeat take on prospects at the company.
"Even though the initial pay is not huge, you have opportunities," said Williams, 47, who hired on in March after his general-contracting business fell victim to the recession. "You can make a lot of money at Boeing."
The company's hiring boom and the enthusiasm of its new employees reflect a victory Boeing hasn't tasted for years.
For the first time in a decade, it should end 2012 as the world's No.1 airplane-maker, both selling and delivering more jets than Airbus.
Boeing expects to deliver at least 585 commercial jets this year.
That's its highest total ever, excluding 1999, when last-of-the-line McDonnell Douglas jets rolling out of Long Beach, Calif., bumped up its deliveries.
In mid-December, the order total for the year reached 1,121 airplanes, second only to the all-time sales record of 2007.
More growth — and hiring — is expected in 2013.
The outlook for Boeing is clouded only by persistent industry worries over the company's strategy for the future.
Is the Airbus A320neo narrowbody jet already eclipsing Boeing's 737 MAX, years before either jet flies?
With a shrinking order book for its new 747-8, will Boeing have to cut production of that jumbo jet?
Is Boeing's corporate management reluctant to spend money to develop crucial new widebody jets?
Will Boeing's engineers and technical workers strike early in the new year and shut down production?
Boeing marketing executive Randy Tinseth, proclaiming 2012 "a very good year," swats away those unresolved questions.
Tinseth said next year will see significant progress on future jet programs, starting with the 737 MAX and the 787-9 but also including the important, still-to-be-launched 787-10 and 777X derivatives of its twin-aisle jets.
He expects the 747 market to slowly improve and said there's no plan to cut production "at this time."
As for that potential strike, Boeing officials insist that despite dire warnings from the union, the engineering workers can come to an agreement with the company in January.
Barring a major shock such as a strike, the production surge inside Boeing's factories will buoy Washington state's job growth for the foreseeable future.
The jet-maker added almost 5,000 new jobs in Washington state in 2012, on top of 8,300 the year before.
That lifted Boeing's in-state workforce to just shy of 87,000 — the highest total since 1999.
The increase cushioned hits elsewhere: When the Kimberly-Clark paper mill closed in Everett this year, 700 people lost their jobs. Boeing hired 165 of them.
The 777 widebody-jet assembly line alone employs about 3,400 workers, 800 of them added this year as production ramped up to an unprecedented rate.
After a holiday lull this month, the hiring will pick right up again in the new year. An orientation class for 190 new mechanics begins Jan. 4.
Inside the factories
That class will go to work on assembly lines that flow faster and more smoothly than a year ago.
Larry Coughlin, a former Marine fighter pilot who directs 787 final assembly, said the Dreamliner, once a nightmare of out-of-sequence work, now "really goes together nicely."
That's because Boeing's major partners are finally delivering completed 787 sections — such as the flight deck from Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kan. — with almost all systems preinstalled.
"The flight deck is so done, the headsets are already hanging for the pilots," said Coughlin.
Boeing intends to double 787 production to 10 jets per month by the end of 2013.
In the assembly bay next to the Dreamliner line, mechanics in mid-December joined together the first 777 widebody built at the new rate of 100 jets per year, up from 84.
To reach that pace, Boeing lengthened the train that delivers parts from Spirit and shortened the time allotted to each assembly position in Everett.
Team leader Kevin Waters said the mechanics who build the 777 fuselage sections "tightened the tolerances on everything," ensuring a better fit.
That allowed the team that joins the airplane's big pieces together to shave their work time to 22 hours, down from 48 hours last year.
The production ramp-up is even more extreme at the Renton 737 narrowbody jet plant, about 40 miles to the south.
This spring, Boeing will bump up the rate there from the current 35 planes per month to 38 — just shy of completing two every workday.
Jets to come
Looking beyond this heady moment of all-time-high production rates, long-term prospects for this region's aerospace industry depend on Boeing's future jets, both narrowbody and widebody.
Boeing earned its sales victory over Airbus this year on the strength of stellar sales of a new version of its narrowbody jet, the 737 MAX. It features new fuel-efficient engines and is to enter service in 2017.
As of mid-December, Boeing had sold 969 MAXs and will certainly make its target of 1,000 orders by year-end.
And yet, however successful the MAX has been, the rival A320neo from its European competitor has been more so.
The Airbus neo program, which launched nearly eight months before the MAX, broke sales records last year and to date has outsold Boeing's offering by more than 680 firm orders.
Mid-December, in Airbus' latest coup, Pegasus Airlines of Turkey ordered 75 neos, becoming the first all-Boeing 737 customer to make a complete defection.
So far then, the war over future narrowbody jets is playing out in Airbus' favor.
Still, Boeing insists it can catch up. Look for plenty of MAX orders in 2013, said Tinseth.
In the competition for widebody-jet supremacy, it's Boeing that has a head start with its 787 Dreamliner. The plane has 844 cumulative orders as of mid-December.
Long term, Airbus sales chief John Leahy is depending on his company's new widebody in development — the all-composite plastic A350 — to counter not only the 787 but also the larger 777.
The largest variant, the A350-1000, to come out in 2017 after two smaller A350 models, is designed to fly the same missions as today's 777 while burning 25 percent less fuel.
Leahy said that launching the A350-1000 earlier — ahead of the smaller and so far unpopular A350-800 — is "definitely a possible alternative."
The timing of Boeing's response to the A350 threat remains opaque.
In early 2012, Jim Albaugh, Boeing's commercial-airplanes chief at the time, said he hoped to ask the Boeing board by the end of the year for authority to sell both a bigger Dreamliner, the 787-10, and an enhanced 777 with new engines and a composite plastic wing, the 777X.
With zero fanfare, the board granted authority to offer the 787-10, though it gave no subsequent sign of when it might formally launch the program.
Meanwhile, the 777X program went completely quiet.
The expectation now is that Boeing may delay the launch of the 787-10 until the Paris Air Show in June, with the 777X coming even later.
What's going on?
Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group worries that Boeing corporate in Chicago is turning its focus — as it did in the early 2000s — to rewarding investors through share buybacks and dividend payments, instead of investing its cash in new jet programs.
"I'd be scared of a return to the bad old days," said Aboulafia. "If there's anybody helping the A350 now, it's Boeing."
Airbus' Leahy says Boeing won't be able to match his A350-1000 until around 2022.
"It'll take them that long to come up with technology that'll be competitive," he said.
But Adam Pilarski, aviation analyst with consulting firm Avitas, said Boeing's slowdown of the 777X is simply prudent, because Airbus' A350 concept may yet shift.
Though Leahy denies it, many believe the A350-800 could eventually be canceled; meanwhile, the larger A350-1000 design may have to be fine-tuned.
"Why play your cards too early?" Pilarski said about Boeing.
Boeing's Tinseth said that despite any slippage in launch announcements, and contrary to Leahy's opinion, the company's two pending jets will still reach the market on schedule.
"We're still focused on both the 787-10 and 777X to enter service late this decade," said Tinseth.
Because the 777 is built in Everett, the 777X jet will certainly be assembled there. The big question is whether its new carbon composite wing will also be built locally.
It's unclear if we'll get the answer to that in 2013.
On the 787-10, a key detail for people in the Puget Sound region is whether that jet might be assembled only at Boeing's North Charleston, S.C., site, which this year delivered its first airplanes (two Dreamliners, as of Dec. 20).
It's possible the longer fuselage sections of the 787-10 may be too big to fly across the continent from the South Carolina fabrication plants where they are put together.
Questions about the ultimate role of the North Charleston assembly complex go further.
While the immediate future of aerospace manufacturing here was assured last year when Boeing anointed Renton to build the 737 MAX, North Charleston will surely be in the running for whatever new jet is developed in the mid-2020s to replace the MAX.
South Carolina growth
This month, in a sign of major future expansion, Boeing began talks with South Carolina officials on options to buy land adjacent to its current 265-acre site. It appears interested in property that could expand its footprint to 1,073 acres.
For now, there is more than enough work for both Boeing sites.
Provided Boeing's management can come to terms with its engineering union in January, jets will continue to fly out of its Puget Sound-area facilities at a record pace in 2013.
Then in summer, Boeing should fly the 787-9 for the first time. And by June's Paris Air Show, the company should finally provide clarity on its plans for the 787-10.
As for the 777X, Steven Udvar-Hazy, chief executive of Air Lease Corp. and long respected as a judge of the airplane market, said Boeing is just "being very careful, thoughtful and methodical."
"Behind the scenes," Udvar-Hazy insists, "there is tangible progress."
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Deliveries: Boeing aims to deliver more than 585 jets in 2012. Its total as of Dec. 21 includes 43 Dreamliners.
Only two airplanes rolled out in South Carolina, the rest in Everett and Renton.
The previous highest delivery total from the Puget Sound-area assembly plants was 561 jets in 1999.
Sales: Boeing booked firm orders for 1,121 jets as of Dec. 21, second only to the 2007 all-time-high order total of 1,413.
Employment: Boeing added almost 5,000 jobs in Washington state, raising employment here to nearly 87,000, the highest total since 1999.
2012 production ramp-up
737: From 31.5 jets a month to 35 (going up to 38 in spring)
747: From 1.5 jets per month to 2
777: From 7 jets a month to 8.3
787: From 2 jets per month to 5
MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Laenia Jackson works on the wing edge of a 787 Dreamliner at Boeing's assembly line in Everett. Production is up to 5 of the jets a month.
MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Beverly Duggins seals the aft cargo door on a 737 at Boeing's narrowbody-jet plant in Renton.
MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Boeing workers piece together the interior of a 737's fuselage section at the Renton plant.