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Friday, July 11, 2014

Pompeo: Boeing says it plans to finish tanker elsewhere

BY RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo said Monday that a senior Boeing official told him the company does not intend to finish the new generation tanker at its Wichita facility, and the work would be done in the Seattle area.

“I hope he was ill-informed inside the Boeing Company,” Pompeo said during a news conference at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita. “But there is no reason to believe that he did not know what the Boeing Company intended.”

Boeing had no response to Pompeo’s claim other than to reiterate the statement it made last month when the company announced it was conducting a study on the future of its Wichita site. At the time, Boeing said closing the Wichita facility was among the options being considered.

“We can’t go any further than that statement,” Boeing spokesman Jarrod Bartlett said.

Pompeo declined to identify the Boeing official who told him the KC-46A tanker would be finished in Seattle. But he had plenty to say in reaction to the comments made to him by that official in recent weeks.

“It’s incomprehensible to me,” he said. “They need to honor the commitment they made to Kansas. I intend to do everything within my power to convince them the right thing to do is to keep that promise.

“If they choose otherwise, I’ll do everything I can to force them to keep that promise.”

Asked how he would do that, Pompeo said, “We are looking at lots of things. I don’t want to talk about what those things are, yet. But know this: The Boeing Company made promises to federal officials.”

The Kansas congressional delegation and elected state officials worked for a decade to help Boeing land the tanker contract. Boeing won the contract, initially worth $35 billion, over Airbus’ parent company, EADS, earlier this year.

Todd Tiahrt, the 4th District congressman for 16 years and Pompeo’s predecessor, was a leading force in getting the tanker contract for Boeing. He became a business consultant earlier this year after leaving office, and Boeing is one of his clients.

“I don’t know what (Boeing’s) views are right now of this facility,” he said. “I don’t think they know either. It’s still up in the air. I’ve been working with the local guys here, and they don’t know anything.”

He said Gov. Sam Brownback and at least one member of his administration went to the state of Washington about two weeks ago to meet with Boeing officials.

“(Brownback) wanted to put a package together to make it attractive for them to expand here,” Tiahrt said. “I know he’s offered some things. I don’t have any idea what it is.”

Neither Brownback nor anyone in his administration will make any further comments on Boeing until the company makes an announcement, Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said.

When Boeing was competing for the Air Force contract for up to 179 air refueling tankers, it told state leaders that winning the contract would mean 7,500 jobs for Kansas, including several hundred at Boeing Wichita, which would become the tanker finishing center. The contract would mean $388 million in economic impact to the state yearly, the company said.

Closing Boeing’s Wichita facility would mean a loss of 2,100 direct jobs and $1.5 billion in wages over 10 years, according to Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

During the news conference, Pompeo held up a thick, three-ring binder that he said contained a “trail of promises” that Boeing made through the media and e-mails that the tankers would be finished in Wichita.

When asked whether there was anything more binding to that commitment beyond a promise and a handshake, he replied, “Where I come from, a promise and a handshake are plenty.”

What seemed to be most frustrating to Pompeo and other officials speaking at Monday’s news conference was that Boeing officials have declined to speak with them about why the company is even considering taking the tanker finishing work elsewhere.

“We have collectively been demanding the opportunity to speak to the Boeing Company,” Pompeo said. “Asking, pleading, imploring, begging … for a discussion. Tell us why this decision was made. We’ll do everything we can to help you get to the place you need for your business.”

Mayor Carl Brewer said his only contact with Boeing was a passing conversation with a one of the company’s lobbyists.

“Talk to us and tell us why you are even considering moving any place,” said Brewer, who joined Pompeo at the news conference along with several council members, Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Dave Unruh and union officials. “Tell us what you are looking at for the future. If there is something you need or a problem you have … tell us what we need to do.

“If you have an illness, you can’t fix it until you have a diagnosis.”

Pompeo said he was making the information public because he wanted to get a conversation going.

“We want everyone to know how precarious the situation is,” he said.

Boeing Wichita primarily performs maintenance and modification of military and government aircraft.

After decades in Wichita, Boeing confirmed Nov. 21 that it was conducting a study because cutbacks in defense budgets made it necessary to review product and service contracts that have matured and expired and have limited prospects for future work. The study is expected to be done by the end of this year or in early 2012.

Boeing also does maintenance work on presidential airlift programs — commonly known as Air Force One. Pompeo said the senior Boeing official also told him that that work would be going to San Antonio.

Steve Rooney, president of the local Machinists union, said that didn’t make sense because workers on Air Force One have to have a security clearance. He said there are less than 10 of those outside of Wichita and more than 180 of them in Wichita.

In speculating on what might be causing Boeing to balk on staying in Wichita, Pompeo said he had heard “rumblings” that labor costs in Wichita were higher than in other parts of the country.

“That simply isn’t accurate,” he said.

During recent discussions that led to Boeing Machinists receiving a four-year contract extension, Rooney said he asked Boeing officials whether labor costs were a reason for the company to consider finishing the tanker in Seattle.

“I was told straight across the table it had nothing to do with labor costs in Wichita,” he said. “Labor costs are a very small percentage of the plane.”

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