Wichita, aviation have strong future

Suddenly Wichita is the talk of the business media, and not in a good way. Long the center of so much airplane manufacturing because of Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, Bombardier Learjet, Spirit AeroSystems, Boeing and their suppliers, it’s now the poster community for the unprecedented collapse of the market.

“Wichita: The next Detroit?” asked an Aviation Week cover story.

Well, no. There are distinct and reassuring differences between the River City and the Motor City, starting with how quickly Wichita’s defining industry froze up and how long Detroit’s has been foundering. And as the magazine observed, “Wichita is not full of abandoned factories, crumbling houses or other signs of urban blight.”

But Wichita’s loss of 13,000 aircraft manufacturing jobs in 11 months is huge news that cannot be ignored or glossed over. The coverage brings needed attention to an issue much bigger than Wichita but very relevant to Wichita’s future — how foreign competition and off-shoring of jobs are changing the markets for both planes and aviation workers.

The articles also carry a key point that inexplicably escaped President Obama and much of Congress over the past year — that by condemning private jet ownership over a few owners’ excesses, they unfairly maligned an industry that employs thousands of highly skilled workers and powers American business.

If members of Congress want to make it up to Wichita, by the way, they could step right up and pass the General Aviation Jobs Act, introduced this month by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, to extend the current bonus depreciation allowance for another two years.

Wichita should not “fret its future,” as a Wall Street Journal headline put it. People will fly and buy aircraft again. The future of general aviation and aerospace remain very strong. Such an industry will continue to be well worth having, ups and downs and all.

But the community must prepare now to serve aircraft manufacturing’s work force and other needs when the market rebounds. To that end, Sedgwick County is proceeding with the National Center for Aviation Training, a state-of-the-art facility under construction at Jabara Airport meant to supply manufacturers with workers trained to meet their high-tech needs.

Wichita also has worked hard to defend and build its aviation cluster of businesses. The National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University is a key asset. Airbus may lease the former Kansas Sports Hall of Fame building for another engineering site. And the way the city, Sedgwick County and state rallied to enable Cessna to choose its hometown for its (since-canceled) Citation Columbus project remains a model.

Just as important, though, is diversification of the local economy, which is why the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has lined up a site selection firm to hone its ability to land new industries and jobs. Expectations also are high for the new Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research and its work in developing medical devices using composites.

Wichita is no Detroit. But it must step up efforts to remain the Air Capital of the World while welcoming and building other kinds of business, to cushion the community blow the next time the mighty industry takes a hit.

— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman