WICHITA, Kan. — Fears about the closure of Boeing Co.’s Wichita plant resurfaced today after a lawmaker’s comments that he had been told that modification work on Air Force refueling tankers will be done in Washington state, but Boeing says its study of all programs at the Kansas site is still going on.
Boeing won a decade-long fight for Pentagon approval to build 179 refueling tankers worth at least $35 billion, a project long touted as being able to create some 7,500 direct and indirect jobs in Kansas with an overall economic impact of $388 million.
“We now know that Boeing intends to walk away from that promise — which severely jeopardizes the future of over 2,000 aviation jobs right here in our community,” U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo told reporters Monday.
No explanation was given for the decision, Pompeo said, and he declined to name the senior official at Boeing with whom he spoke.
Boeing had said last month it was studying whether to close the Wichita facility, which specializes in modifying commercial aircraft for military or government operations, in order to address Defense Department budget cuts. The company said Monday that the study was still going on and Boeing won’t make an announcement about any work moving elsewhere until late this year or early next year.
“Everybody is talking about the tanker work — all of the programs at the Wichita facility are part of the ongoing study,” said Jarrod Bartlett, a spokesman for Boeing in Wichita.
The facility has 2,100 employees and handles work on the Air Force executive fleet, bomber engineering and modification support and still has some work it is doing on an Italian refueling tanker, Bartlett said.
Boeing has had a facility in Wichita since it bought the Stearman Aircraft Co. in 1929. During World War II, employment at the plant peaked at more than 40,000 as the company churned out four bombers a day, Bartlett said. For decades the company remained the city’s largest employer.
In 2005, Boeing spun off its commercial aircraft operations in Kansas and Oklahoma. At that time, the company still had roughly 15,000 employees in Wichita. After the divestiture, Boeing retained 4,500 workers for its defense work in Wichita but layoffs since have slashed that remaining work force.
Slower federal military spending is affecting defense companies like Boeing. Several other defense companies have announced layoffs.
“The whole defense sector is going to remain under pressure for at least the next year or two,” said Brian Langenberg, a defense and aerospace analyst for Langenberg & Co.
Kansas lawmakers supported Boeing’s fight for the tanker, and the company seems to be risking alienating them by putting that work somewhere else.
Decisions like that are a trade-off, and Boeing has other members of Congress to think about, too, including a senior group that represents Washington State, Langenberg said.
Pompeo said it was also his understanding that Boeing intends to move maintenance work on Air Force One out of Wichita.
“If the KC-46 tanker is not built in Wichita, Kan., and the presidential aircraft moves to Kelly Air Force Base (in San Antonio) … it becomes very difficult to imagine how Boeing would continue to keep the facility here,” he said.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said the company made a commitment to the city.
“The discussion about the possibility of them moving someplace else and shutting down the complex that they have here is unacceptable,” Brewer said. “It is unacceptable because there was a commitment for future jobs, future work, the possibility of being able to take care of future families here in this community. We stood beside them and we expect them to stand beside us.”
Steve Rooney, president of the machinists union in Wichita, said Boeing officials told him during contract negotiations that if the facility were to remain open, the tanker work would be done in Wichita.
Wichita, which calls itself the “air capital of the world” is home to manufacturing plants for Spirit AeroSystems, Cessna Aircraft, Bombardier Aerospace and Hawker Beechcraft as well as more than a hundred smaller aircraft parts suppliers that support them. Now not only does the city stand to possibly lose the 7,500 direct and indirect aviation jobs that the refueling tanker work entailed, but the remaining jobs at the Boeing plant.
Union officials also questioned how the company can consider moving the work on presidential plane to Kelly Air Force Base, arguing that only Wichita has the numbers of workers with the necessary security clearances to work on it.
Bob Brewer, Wichita director for Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, said he is disappointed Boeing is even considering closing the plant.
“This isn’t about today,” he said. “This is about the future of Wichita, the future of Kansas and the future of Boeing and the jobs that were promised to us.”