Cessna Aircraft Co. and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 774 kicked off negotiations Friday at the Courtyard by Marriott in Old Town.
Cessna CEO Jack Pelton and Machinists international president Tom Buffenbarger addressed the negotiating teams, then spoke at a news conference.
The current contract expires Sept. 19.
The union represents 2,300 hourly workers in Wichita, down from 6,200 during the last round of talks three years ago.
The challenge is how to protect members, employees and the company, to secure jobs and help them survive the economic crisis that has damaged the general aviation industry "and emerge better off on the other side," Buffenbarger said.
"These are very difficult times, and they are unprecedented — at least in Jack Pelton's working career and mine," Buffenbarger said.
Three years ago, the industry was booming. Production rates were growing, and Cessna's backlog was the strongest in its history, Pelton said.
Cessna and the union were talking about a future where they were "unsure where it could go because it had unlimited potential," Pelton said.
That's changed dramatically. The company's order backlog has fallen more than 50 percent, and its labor force has been cut in half.
"We're not sure whether we've seen the bottom; we're still seeing very, very tough economic conditions," Pelton said.
The aviation industry typically recovers 24 months after the overall economy recovers, he said.
"We haven't seen that economic recovery," Pelton said. "And as a result, people just aren't buying airplanes right now."
The union and the company must work together to create an environment that allows the company to be competitive and productive in a global marketplace, he said.
Cessna's biggest competitor today is Embraer in Brazil, which has cost and productivity advantages.
"They're coming after us," Pelton said.
Still, in the end, "this is all about jobs," Pelton said. "It's about saving and preserving our industry and the jobs and the work force we have and the members that we have," Pelton said.
"This isn't two warring sides," Buffenbarger said. "These are two guys that understand the value of this company and these jobs."
Members also understand the current economic climate, he said.
Eventually, the day will come when they can sit down in better economic conditions _ "where it's fun again instead of having to make the fundamental shifts we're going to have to make in these negotiations."
It remains to be seen whether the contract offer will be forged similar to the one the Machinists negotiated with Spirit AeroSystems, Buffenbarger said. That was a 10-year agreement.
"We're committed to finding the way and flexibilities that will enable Cessna to remain a very viable... and the premier company that it is and to get through these times," he said.
It's busy times for the Machinists.
The talks open a day after the Machinists and Hawker Beechcraft reopened negotiations a year before the current contract expires in a quest to preserve jobs in Wichita.
"We're going to make it work," Buffenbarger said. "There's too much at stake to the community."