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Friday, April 18, 2014

Boeing would finish tankers in Wichita

BY MOLLY MCMILLIN
The Wichita Eagle

In a departure from previous comments, a Boeing official said finishing work on U.S. Air Force aerial refueling tankers will be done in Wichita if the company wins the contract.

"The finishing work will be there," spokesman William Barksdale said. "Absolutely."

It's too soon to say, however, what the scope of the work would be, he said.

"I don't know what that looks like or how much will be there," Barksdale said. But "it's absolutely an important part of the plan."

Boeing is bidding against a Northrop Grumman/EADS proposal. The Air Force has issued a draft request for proposals for the contract. A final request is expected soon. A decision is expected next year.

In September, Boeing KC-X program manager Rick Lemaster told Flight International that Wichita would be part of a Boeing tanker program. But he said the company could shift finishing work from Wichita to another location to lower costs.

"We are looking at alternatives," Lemaster said then. "If we can find cheaper places to do the (finishing center) work, we will consider that."

The company "came off of that comment and tried to be clear that Wichita is an important part of the modifications and will be part of the modification work," Barksdale said.

He was careful, however, not to say that Wichita would become a "finishing center" for refuelers, something Boeing said would have occurred had Boeing won in a previous round of bidding.

In the last round, the Northrop Grumman proposal beat out Boeing for a $35 billion contract to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of aerial refuelers. Boeing offered a tanker derivative of its 767 airliner.

Boeing successfully protested the award to the Northrop Grumman team. The Government Accountability Office report said the Air Force failed to evaluate both proposals on the same merits.

A Boeing win would have meant 300 to 500 jobs at Boeing Wichita and another 500 jobs for Wichita suppliers, Boeing has said.

Spirit AeroSystems builds part of every Boeing airliner.

This time, Boeing isn't saying how many jobs a tanker contract would mean for Wichita.

In the new round of bidding, Boeing isn't releasing details on which aircraft it will propose, or how they would be built, Barksdale said.

"That's pretty competitive in nature — how you build the plane, what you do in-line, how you modify things," he said.

Wichita has expertise on tanker work. It is modifying 767 commercial aircraft into tankers for Japan and Italy.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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