SEATTLE – Political and labor leaders in Kansas are convinced Boeing is poised to announce closure of its defense facility in Wichita, a move that would bring thousands of additional Air Force tanker jobs to Washington state.
Under Boeing’s recent contract agreement with the Machinists union, closing the Wichita plant would send the work of completing all military systems on the Air Force 767 refueling tankers to the company’s factories in the Puget Sound area.
When Boeing was competing to win the tanker contract in spring 2010, it said the tanker work would bring approximately 7,500 jobs to Wichita, including direct Boeing jobs, indirect jobs at suppliers and ancillary jobs at service businesses catering to the workforce.
The jobs boost for Washington would be smaller if the tanker completion work goes there instead, because structural modifications would be done on the assembly line at the Everett factory by the same workforce that builds the airframe. The military systems could be installed either in Everett or Seattle.
Still, the workforce here would have to be beefed up considerably. Along with additional indirect jobs, the extra tanker work could certainly add several thousand jobs in Washington.
The corresponding hit to Wichita would be heavy. Boeing employs about 2,100 people at the facility, including about 550 engineers.
Boeing announced last month that it is studying the future of the Wichita facility, including the possibility of closure, citing “limited prospects for future work.”
As part of its recent landmark deal with the International Association of Machinists, Boeing committed that if the tanker work is not done in Wichita, it will be performed in its “current and existing facilities in Puget Sound.”
At a news conference Monday in Wichita, U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., flanked by union officials and the city’s mayor, said a “senior Boeing official” had told him the decision has already been made.
Pompeo, who was formerly chief executive of an aerospace company and defense contractor and is still well-connected in the Kansas aerospace industry, did not name the official.
On Monday, Boeing stuck to its November statement that it won’t complete the study until the end of the year or in early 2012.
“It’s still an ongoing study,” said Boeing spokesman Jarrod Bartlett. “We’ll make an announcement as soon as we are able.”
One factor motivating Boeing to consider moving the tanker work is the success in Renton, Wash., of the P-8 anti-submarine jet, a derivative of the 737 commercial airliner.
The P-8 represented a departure from previous Boeing programs that converted commercial jets for military use. On earlier programs, a basic empty airframe was delivered from the Puget Sound region factories and flown to the defense unit in Wichita for structural modifications and installation of military systems.
On the P-8, major structural modifications to the commercial airframe are done on the Renton production line as the plane is assembled. Installation of the military systems is done nearby in Seattle.
That new approach has worked well, producing major cost efficiencies, said Boeing P-8 spokesman Chick Ramey.
Because Boeing won the tanker program with a low bid to beat out Airbus parent company EADS, cost savings are essential to the program’s profitability.
If Boeing does close the Wichita defense plant, other work currently done there – including modification and engineering support of Air Force One and other government and military jets that are derivatives of Boeing 737s, 757s and 747s, as well as the B-52 bomber fleet – would be dispersed to Boeing facilities around the U.S.