November 18, 2010

Parkinson talks about plan to keep Hawker here

TOPEKA — Gov. Mark Parkinson said Wednesday the deal he brokered to try to guarantee Hawker Beechcraft stays in Wichita contained a commitment for providing significant university and technical education opportunities to the company's workers.

TOPEKA — Gov. Mark Parkinson said Wednesday the deal he brokered to try to guarantee Hawker Beechcraft stays in Wichita contained a commitment for providing significant university and technical education opportunities to the company's workers.

Parkinson has been largely silent on the package of incentives the state offered to try to keep the company in Kansas, saying that if he released full details, other states would probably try to top the package and lure away the company's 5,000 to 6,000 jobs.

But in an interview with The Eagle on Wednesday, as he prepares to hand over the reins of government to Gov.-elect Sam Brownback, Parkinson outlined some of the deal's educational components.

"The package included some tuition assistance to employees that could have sought courses at Wichita State, and it also involved some slots where Hawker Beechcraft employees, at no cost, could have attended the new aircraft training center.

"What I liked about that component of the package was really two things: First, it continued to support our initiative to have a very trained work force, and second, it provided some stability to both Wichita State and the new training center, which is just getting started and I think could use some support."

He said he hopes Brownback will be able to work out an arrangement that is acceptable to the company, the Machinists union, the community and the state.

Parkinson's effort stumbled when Machinists members, facing a 10 percent pay cut and big give-backs on health insurance, rejected a contract that would have kept about two-thirds of Hawker Beechcraft's production in Wichita for seven years.

Parkinson said he understands why the workers voted down the contract, which would have triggered the state incentives, and he said he bears them no ill will.

Mostly, the campaign was about pay cuts and the fact that even if they approved the contract, some of the union members would still lose their jobs, he said.

"Presented that way, I understand the outcome of the vote," he said.

"Nevertheless, I wish there would have been a way to close that transaction, and I will say that I still believe there are ways" to do that.

He said he doesn't think he will be able to do that in the two months he has left in office, largely because the Machinists' contract doesn't expire until August.

"My hope is Hawker Beechcraft will not make any definitive agreements to move any of their product lines" in the meantime, he said.

Parkinson said he plans to tell Brownback that the most important thing is to keep the company and the union talking and make sure the governor stays in the loop.

"I think everybody wants the same result," he said. "Whether you talk to the city, the county, the state, the company or the union, they all want to stay in Wichita, so when you have five parties that all want the same result, you ought to be able to achieve it."

Commercial airliners

On the broader subject of Wichita's aviation future, Parkinson separated it into two categories: production of commercial airliners and production of smaller private planes and business jets.

He said the outlook is good for the big planes and dicier for the small ones.

"I believe that commercial aviation will offer Wichita and Kansas a very stable future for a long time to come," he said. "And that's essentially true because the cost to compete with commercial aviation is so incredibly high that we don't have to worry as much about Mexico and countries in the Far East competing with Boeing and Spirit and Airbus as we do in general aviation."

Airbus, the European aircraft maker, has been seen by many as the enemy of Wichita during the fight between that company and Boeing over an Air Force contract to build the next generation of military refueling tankers.

But Parkinson said he sees opportunities to work with Airbus to bring more of that company's work here. Airbus already operates an engineering facility in Old Town that expects to grow to 350 employees by the end of 2012.

"It's something we don't talk about very often in Kansas, because we're so committed to Boeing, are the possibilities we have with Airbus," he said. "And Airbus has made some significant investments in Wichita, and I would encourage future leaders to encourage that relationship.

"While we certainly appreciate Boeing's presence, there's no rule that we can only help out Boeing. Airbus has a huge future and is a company I would be looking at in the future."

General aviation

He said the general aviation picture "is much more complicated because the sale of small aircraft is very cyclical, it's extremely impacted by the status of the economy. It's also much easier for foreign countries to compete with general aviation.

"What I believe that we need to do is... nurture advantages that we have in Wichita if we're going to succeed in that area."

Parkinson said those advantages include the quality of the local work force, aviation history and "the incredible knowledge reservoir that we have in the Wichita area on how to build these airplanes."

But he said that to stay competitive, Kansas must put money into such programs as the National Center for Aircraft Training at Jabara Airport and the engineering department and the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University.

"The reality is that more and more countries will develop the capability to build small airplanes," Parkinson said. "Any of those value-added things that we have that other states can't just create overnight, it's very important we invest in (those)."

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