Boeing blames labor costs, federal budget cuts and global competion for its plan to leave Wichita. But the decision stings like a betrayal – one eliminating 2,160 local jobs, breaking promises of tanker-finishing work, and bringing a mutually beneficial 80-year relationship between the city and the company to a bitter end.
After weeks of assuming the worst, and no rumors to the contrary, Wichita got confirmation Wednesday that Boeing would be leaving town by the end of 2013, taking with it any hope of direct jobs from Boeing’s $35 billion contract to build the Air Force’s aerial-refueling fleet.
So much for the Kansas congressional delegation’s relentless, decade-long advocacy for Boeing on behalf of the tanker deal, and for the bond between the company and the community where it employed 40,000 people during World War II and 12,400 as recently as 2004.
Instead, work on the KC-46 tanker will go to Washington state, while engineering and modification work will move from Wichita to Oklahoma City and San Antonio, respectively.
The stated reasons for Boeing’s move sting, too.
Not that “the defense budget is flattening out and may decline,” as Mark Bass, vice president and general manager for Boeing Defense, Space and Security’s Maintenance, Modifications and Upgrades division, told The Eagle editorial board Wednesday afternoon. That’s likely, even with the tanker contract in hand.
What stings is that pulling out of Wichita reportedly was necessary to reduce costs, increase efficiencies and drive competitiveness. For example, Bass said, Boeing Wichita’s costs for modification work figure out as 70 percent higher than those of its San Antonio operation, which is nonunion.
“Cost-cutting won,” as Richard Aboulafia, Teal Group aviation and defense analyst, told the Hill newspaper.
And Wichita lost.
It’s some comfort that Boeing still plans on using 24 Kansas suppliers for the KC-46, and that Kansas is the fourth-largest state in Boeing’s supplier network.
As Bass said, “We have a tremendous amount of business here” – something elected officials should bear in mind for the future.
But Wichita certainly will miss the estimated $1.5 billion in wages over 10 years, its association with Air Force One, and its long, proud status as a Boeing town.
Wichita’s survival is not in doubt, and Boeing’s exit may afford Spirit AeroSystems – the former Boeing commercial division – more opportunities and room to grow.
As general aviation recovers, so will Wichita’s remaining planemakers.
And Wichita will have to replace its long-held hostility toward Airbus with a welcome mat, approaching the European planemaker’s Wichita workforce of nearly 300 engineers as only the beginning.
Meanwhile, the community needs to keep Boeing workers and their loved ones in its thoughts, hearts and prayers. Uncertainty looms for them, as it has for so many aircraft families in Wichita over the past decade.