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MCDONNELL DOUGLAS DOWNPLAYING RUMORS OF A NEW ASSEMBLY PLANT

McDonnell Douglas is downplaying rumors that the aircraft manufacturer will build another plant to assemble plastic interior parts, such as overhead luggage compartments and ceiling fixtures.

"I'm not saying it will happen or that it won't," said Dave Eastman, spokesman for subsidiary Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, Calif.The Southern California operations are running at capacity, he explained, and officials are constantly examining ways to farm out more subassembly work, including expanding operations in Salt Lake City and other cities around the country.

He said reports of expansion in Salt Lake have probably evolved through the rumor mill from a "what if" proposal to a firm commitment to buy land and build another plant near its existing one north of the Salt Lake International Airport.

"Looking at different options and committing to build a plant are two very different things. And we are not even close to that (expanding)," he said.

The company's production lines are under pressure, however, with a recent flood of orders for commercial jetliners. As of March 31, Douglas Aircraft has 284 order for the MD-11 aircraft, and for the MD-80: 392 firm deliveries and 512 options and reserves.

Eastman said the company is pleased with production at the 2-year-old Salt Lake plant and is hiring about 30 new employs every six weeks to assemble the interior floors, rear wall and wing subassemblies for passenger jets. The plant now employs about 300, and Eastman estimated that total to reach 1,000 sometime next year to fill the MD-80 orders.

For what it's worth, in the past year the state has sent at least two delegations of economic development officials to Long Beach to persuade Douglas Aircraft to let Salt Lake's inexpensive labor force handle the company's additional expansion needs.

Despite a willingness to confirm increases in employment, McDonnell Douglas hesitates to disclose any details on plant expansions until it is certain what the expansion is for - an increase of current jobs or transferring new assembly jobs from Southern California.

Eastman cited the initial plans of the Salt Lake plant switching from assembling parts for a military project to commercial jets as an example of how things can change.

That switch in purpose was apparently for the better. While the military aircraft would have required more space for machines, the commercial assembly work requires more space for bodies and therefore more jobs.