What’s going on within Wichita’s main industry inspires deep concern, raising the scary possibility that the canceled orders, scrapped plans and deep job cuts of the past two years might not be the prelude to the next boom after all.
Hawker Beechcraft is looking at moving work to other states and countries, with Louisiana and Mississippi among the contenders. Cessna Aircraft issued 75 more layoff notices Thursday (at its Independence plant), and recently opened its fourth facility in Mexico.
And the Machinists union just began contract negotiations Thursday with Hawker and Friday with Cessna, with the sides in both sets of talks agreeing that the times are beyond tough and the stakes are beyond high.
All eyes and hopes will be focused on those negotiations, especially because, according to what the union says in the case of Hawker, how they fare could determine whether the company stays.
Then again, Bombardier Aerospace recently recommitted to the city and state, thanks in part to a $27 million bond-financing deal landing Wichita the assembly of the new composite Learjet 85. And Spirit AeroSystems saw its net income rise in the second quarter and continues to view Wichita as key to its solid performance companywide (which recently did expand to a plant in Kinston, N.C.).
A scenario in which Wichita ceases to be the Air Capital of the World would require one of two impossibilities to occur — for the world to never again need new aircraft, or for aviation companies to conclude there are better places than Wichita to build all those planes.
At a distance, other states or countries might seem to have some advantages over Wichita, especially cheaper labor and rich incentive packages. But the case to stay in Wichita is too compelling to be denied — at least by CEOs who care as much about the quality of their products as they say they do, or as the companies’ founders always did.
Where else are companies going to find thousands of well-trained, highly skilled workers for whom aviation has been the family business for generations?
Where else will businesses have access to a facility with the capabilities and connections of Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research? Or have the benefit of the tailored programs and skilled graduates of Sedgwick County’s new National Center for Aviation Training?
Where else will the companies find elected officials at City Hall and the Statehouse who understand the industry, respect its unique needs and, in some cases, have worked or still work in aviation?
Even if the Machinists union’s new contract with Spirit fell short of winning workers’ approval and has raised industry concerns because of its increased pension benefits, it’s good for 10 years — standing out for the certainty it offers both company and workers during an uncertain time.
Local and state leaders can’t be complacent about what the future holds for Wichita’s aviation cluster. If there’s something to be done to make a difference, including a special session of the Legislature, let’s do it. But the infrastructure for building aircraft, the suppliers, the technical expertise and support, the decades’ worth of investment in general aviation — it’s not in another state or Mexico or China. It’s in Wichita, where the industry belongs.