Tanker contract looks promising

If Wichitans have learned anything from a decade of false starts on a contract for Air Force refueling tankers, it's to avoid false hopes about how many local jobs a Boeing win might bring and how soon. Still, Wednesday's launch of the latest competition for the $35 billion, 179-tanker contract looks promising for Wichita's aviation work force and economy.

The process also looks fair — though, as noted by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, it should have taken into account the World Trade Organization's determination that potential bidder European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. benefited from illegal government subsidies for planes including its A330, the basis for its tanker bid in collaboration with U.S.-based Northrop Grumman.

If Northrop-EADS follows through on threats not to bid on the tanker contract because the specifications favor Boeing's 767 tanker, so be it. Though a competition with multiple bidders would be welcome — and what matters most in the deal is what best serves the Air Force and the nation's security — most Americans would prefer that the vast task of building the air-refueling fleet go to an American company and as many American workers as possible. That's more true now than at any other point in the decade-long tanker debacle, with U.S. unemployment at 9.7 percent.

Politicians representing Alabama, where Northrop-EADS has promised to build a tanker assembly plant, can argue otherwise and even continue to try to manipulate the process in Congress with nomination holds and other mischief. But the fact is that Europeans would enjoy a sizable amount of the work and dollars involved in a Northrop-EADS tanker, at the expense of American jobs and taxpayers.

The launch of the tanker competition bodes well for Wichita, which has taken more blows than it can count in its aviation sector during the recession. But there are other reasons to feel optimistic about the future of aviation in Wichita, including this week's ribbon cutting of the FlightSafety International Hawker Beechcraft Maintenance Learning Center and the planned Old Town expansion of Airbus North America Engineering.

Plus, as reported in a Sunday Eagle article, Wichita State University's National Institute for Aviation Research has been building on its reputation as one of the industry's premier facilities for testing. Meanwhile, construction has continued at Sedgwick County's National Center for Aviation Training at Jabara Airport, which, as County Commissioner Dave Unruh noted after a tour by city and county leaders this week, will be "something that our community, I think, can be very proud of as we try to maintain our strength in manufacturing for this region."

As Wichita waits to see the tanker competition play out over the summer and into September, it should take pride in all it continues to offer aviation, and take pains to ensure it keeps the airplanes coming for many more years to come.