Trending: ‘It was awesome’: After Boeing’s 777X jet finishes its first flight, test pilots give the first review
Boeing President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg addresses the SAE 2015 AeroTech Congress in Seattle on Tuesday. (Credit: Alan Boyle for GeekWire)
Boeing President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg addresses the SAE 2015 AeroTech Congress in Seattle on Tuesday. (Credit: Alan Boyle for GeekWire)

Two months into his job as the Boeing Co.’s president and CEO, Dennis Muilenburg says Amazon and Facebook are emerging as competitors in the aerospace industry, due to their plans to develop drones for package deliveries and Internet services.

But they could also emerge as business partners, Muilenburg said Tuesday during his keynote address at this week’s SAE 2015 AeroTech Congress and Exhibition in Seattle.

He said Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple can bring opportunities for collaboration as well as competitive challenges. That adds them to the ranks of traditional players in the aerospace industry like Lockheed Martin, and emerging players like China’s Comac aerospace venture.

“The bottom line of all of that is, I think it’s good for us,” Muilenburg told a standing-room crowd at the Washington State Convention Center. “This competition, these new partnerships make us better as a company. But it does mean we have to be adept at developing these new global collaboration models.”

Aerospace industry web
One of Muilenburg’s presentation slides shows Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook alongside Airbus, Bombardier and Lockheed Martin as part of a web of competitors and partners in the aerospace industry. (Credit: Alan Boyle for GeekWire)

He pointed to Blue Origin as an example: That space venture, which was founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and has its headquarters in Kent, Wash., is working on an orbital launch system that could be competitive with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship. At the same time, it’s working on a next-generation BE-4 rocket engine for use on the Vulcan rocket being developed by United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture.

“That’s one example of bringing different sectors together,” Muilenburg said. “You could bring together combinations that otherwise you couldn’t choose — in this case, mission reliability and low cost, being able to do both. That’s a new kind of partnership that’s exciting for the future.”

So could Boeing someday be selling drones to Amazon?

“Maybe,” Muilenberg told GeekWire with a smile. “Unmanned airplanes — and more broadly, autonomy in space, in the air, undersea — is a big future area for Boeing, and an area where we are continuing to build out collaborations. So we are always looking for partners in that arena.”

Muilenburg, who is due to host Chinese President Xi Jinping at Boeing’s Everett plant on Wednesday, also hinted at good news to come about Boeing’s dealings with China. When he was asked whether new orders would be announced in connection with Xi’s visit, he replied, “Stand by.”

“We have a number of our customers and President Xi himself and his team here this week, and we want to respect the dialogue we have with them,” Muilenburg said. “You’ll be seeing more news as we conduct the visit this week.”

This month, The Seattle Times reported that Boeing was close to reaching a deal to open a 737 jet completion and delivery center in China, and that the deal might be announced during Xi’s visit. On Tuesday, Muilenburg declined to comment further about that report — except to argue that any such deal would benefit Boeing’s U.S. workforce as well as the company’s Chinese partners.

“If we ramp up capabilities in China, including additional 737-related work, the actions that we’ll take are actions that ultimately allow us to grow jobs in the U.S.,” he said.

Subscribe to GeekWire's Space & Science weekly newsletter


Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.