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Boeing in Alabama

John Mohr, Auburn University
One of the nation's oldest and largest aerospace companies, Boeing maintains extensive involvement with both the civilian National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) program and related defense projects in Alabama. Since 1962, Boeing's Alabama facilities have been concentrated around Huntsville, Madison County, where the company supports the activities of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and military operations at Redstone Arsenal. The company currently employs about 2,700 people in the state, primarily as engineering and research support staff. That number is projected to rise as more engineering jobs relocate to the Huntsville area from Boeing's other facilities around the country. The company's total annual economic impact in Alabama is estimated at more than a half billion dollars. In the more than 50 years that Boeing has been active in Alabama, the company has invested tens of billions of dollars into the state economy.
Founded in 1916 by William E. Boeing in Seattle, Washington, Boeing Company is one of the world's largest aerospace conglomerates. The company first found success during World War I as a producer of military aircraft and seaplanes. In the interwar era, the company diversified into passenger airliners and cargo planes. Its subsidiary United Airlines was one of the first passenger airlines with regularly scheduled service in the United States. Boeing pioneered many important innovations in aircraft design, including all-metal construction, more reliable engines, and pressurized cabins. During World War II, the company was a major producer of military aircraft, notably the Boeing-designed B-17 and B-29 bombers. In the postwar era, Boeing emerged as one of the pre-eminent manufacturers of commercial and military aircraft in the world. The Cold War provided sustained demand for military aircraft, and the rapidly expanding demand for air travel increased sales of large jetliners. Boeing continued to expand and diversify into emergent aerospace technologies, including rocketry and space flight, as the United States began to establish its leadership in space exploration.
Boeing first came to Alabama in 1962 to fulfill U.S. government contracts associated with the 1960s "space race" with the then-Soviet Union and development of missile defense systems. The NASA Marshall Space Flight Center had been founded in 1960 on the grounds of the Redstone Arsenal to serve as the center of American spaceflight and rocket research and development. Boeing and other aerospace contractors quickly developed their own facilities at or near the NASA site to support their government contract work. Boeing established an office in a Huntsville hotel, where a few employees worked to support the Saturn V rocket program.
Early Boeing projects included the Saturn SC-1 booster rocket, which propelled the Apollo space exploration missions, and the Lunar Rover used by astronauts to explore the surface of the Moon. Boeing engineers later helped develop and assemble the Skylab Orbital Workshop and the habitat module of the International Space Station. Many of these programs had parallel defense applications, especially those related to rocketry.
Employment grew rapidly, peaking at about 4,500 employees in 1966. Employment declined sharply after the cancellation of the Apollo space program in the 1970s, but the company continued to employ thousands of people in the Huntsville area. In 1984, Boeing opened a major new facility near the Huntsville International Airport. It eventually grew to more than 600,000 square feet and houses research labs, manufacturing plants, and testing facilities to support the company's various high-tech aerospace projects. Today, Boeing has about 2,700 employees in Alabama. These include highly skilled technical personnel as well as manufacturing and service employees in many trades. Like many aerospace companies and defense contractors, Boeing engages in both consulting and manufacturing work.
Boeing continues to be heavily involved in the Huntsville area, providing a wide variety of defense and aerospace expertise. Some of Boeing's current aerospace and defense projects include the Arrow Weapon System and the Avenger anti-missile system. The Standard Missile-3 Block IIB System and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 are other missile programs under development by the company. Boeing Defense, Space, and Security is the subsidiary with the largest presence in the state; it manages Boeing's defense and space exploration work. Huntsville also is the home of the subsidiary company Boeing Rotorcraft Support, which provides engineering and technical support to customers of the company's helicopter business. Boeing relies on the services of more than 220 subcontractors with operations located in Alabama to complete these projects. These subcontractors primarily provide manufacturing and specialized engineering support services and constitute a major source of secondary employment. The company estimates that it spent more than $510 million on direct purchases from approximately 220 suppliers in recent years, supporting an additional 16,000 jobs.
In 2013, Boeing announced plans to gradually shift between 300 and 400 engineering jobs to its Huntsville facility from various other American labs as part of a general restructuring of its engineering operations and as a cost-saving move. In 2014, Boeing relocated many of its Huntsville offices and research facilities to the newly opened Redstone Gateway office park. In June 2015, Boeing opened the Boeing Research and Technology–Alabama facility in Huntsville. Employees in this 80,000-square-foot facility conduct basic research and development in a number of fields related to aerospace, including materials science and vehicle control systems. This facility is the newest addition to Boeing's global network of research and development labs.
Boeing is best known as an aircraft manufacturer, and Alabama officials were involved in a tug-of-war with other states over the location of a new facility for the forthcoming 777X commercial jetliner in 2013. Boeing announced that it was exploring locations for the facility outside Washington State to avoid the high labor costs at its existing unionized facility. The facility, which would have employed thousands of people and represented billions of dollars in investment, was pursued by multiple states. Alabama governor Robert Bentley worked with state and local government officials, including Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield and Huntsville mayor Tommy Battle, to lobby Boeing to locate the new factory alongside its existing operations in Huntsville. Local U.S. Representative Mo Brooks also voiced support for the project. In the end, Boeing executives decided to keep primary production of the 777X in Washington State, where the company had traditionally assembled its commercial aircraft. But the company did succeed in winning concessions from the machinists' union by threatening to move to a so-called "right-to-work" state like Alabama, where unions are traditionally weak. In response, Bentley charged the company with using the threat of relocation to Alabama as leverage against the union but conceded that Alabama had still been a viable choice for the facility. In recent years, Boeing has contributed more than $1.5 million annually in charitable giving to a wide variety of causes in the state.
Published:  January 14, 2016   |   Last updated:  April 28, 2017