Eagle editorial: Why not build 777X in Wichita?

11/26/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:20 AM

As Boeing entertains offers from more than a dozen places that would love to build its new 777X, a new question arises: Why not Wichita?

Yes, the Air Capital is at the end of a painful breakup with the aerospace giant, which announced early last year that it would exit Wichita by the end of 2013 after more than 80 productive years. And the hard truth is that the comparatively high labor costs cited by Boeing as a reason to leave Wichita don’t favor Wichita now for the 777X work. The remaining members of the Machinists union at Boeing Wichita work under the same master agreement as those in Puget Sound and were part of the recent vote rejecting Boeing’s offered eight-year contract extension, a vote that would have secured the 777X project for Washington state. Wichita also lacks seaport access, of course.

But hard feelings between Wichita and Boeing can be set aside, especially if other arguments favoring the city are strong. And they are, starting with the property Boeing is vacating in Wichita (though its vacant hangar space would have to be converted to manufacturing), the skilled workforce and reliable supplier network, and local aerospace assets such as the National Center for Aviation Training and Wichita State University’s National Center for Aviation Research.

As Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst with the Teal Group, told the Seattle Times on Saturday, choosing a site without airplane manufacturing experience is “just really a bad idea. You are adding multiple layers of risk both in terms of workforce and infrastructure.”

Picking Wichita would avoid such risk, and reassure 777X buyers that Boeing has learned from the delays and quality-control problems that plagued the 787 Dreamliner program.

The company told Associated Press that requests for proposals began going out on Friday, and the company would like to make its choice in early 2014. Boeing spokesman Doug Alder told the Seattle Times that Boeing is considering proposals for final assembly, for fabrication and assembly of the 777X’s large composite wing, or for both. “Those could occur in the same place or separately,” Alder said.

The competition for the 777X is fierce, and may be out of Kansas’ league in incentives to be offered. Before the union vote, Washington state set the hard-to-match mark with $9 billion tax breaks over 16 years and legislation aimed at improving aerospace training and permitting. States that have been open about their interest include Alabama, California, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Utah.

The prize includes thousands of jobs and a long-term relationship with Boeing, which received 225 orders for the 777X from three airlines at last week’s Dubai Air Show.

The Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and Gov. Sam Brownback reportedly are involved in discussions about the 777X. But every elected official from Wichita to Washington, D.C., should be engaged.

Wichita is uniquely prepared to do the 777X work. But first it has to win the job.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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