February 27, 2011 in Business

Caldwell: Boeing’s tanker victory a blow to ’Bama

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Thousands of Boeing Co. employees and suppliers, and only a touch fewer politicians, took a collective victory lap Thursday after the Pentagon made the 767 its choice for a new generation of U.S. Air Force tankers.

The decision was a surprise to many, including partisans of the competing bid from the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. – EADS.

The European consortium planned to make a modified Airbus A330 aircraft at a new Mobile, Ala., plant. That state’s governor, the city’s mayor and other officials had assembled to respond to the expected EADS victory.

The modified 767, dubbed the KC-46A by officials with a tin ear for branding, will be manufactured in the same Everett and Wichita, Kan., plants where the commercial version is made. Production, labor leaders boasted Thursday, has become 20 percent to 30 percent more efficient with the help of skilled union workers.

Those improvements helped overcome the edge EADS gained by “cheating” in the form of $5 billion in A330 “launch aid,” said Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

“American taxpayers did not subsidize the 767 airframe,” he said.

For organized labor, which has become a punching bag for those who resent any lingering pockets of middle-class prosperity, the Boeing win was especially sweet. Unions do not get much of a friendly reception down South.

The help given Airbus by European governments, a claim supported by the World Trade Organization, has also galled Boeing supporters frustrated by the Chicago-based company’s loss of supremacy in commercial airplane sales. Sen. Patty Murray has been particularly vehement, and she did not let Thursday’s announcement pass without another denunciation of Airbus sugar-daddies.

Oddly, it was EADS that thought it would lose on price if Boeing was willing to bid whatever it took to get the tanker bid. Former partner Northrop Grumman had dropped out because executives feared a winning bid might be a profit-killer.

With $30 billion-plus on the table, there must be a few gallons of black ink in there somewhere.

EADS and Boeing officials will be briefed this week on the process that led to the Pentagon’s decision. After that, the Europeans will have 10 days to appeal. Boeing did so successfully after EADS won a flawed 2008 competition.

Meanwhile, Fairchild Air Force Base airmen continue to fly the Studebaker of aviation, a point not lost on Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood. She was among the Alabama officials who faced a crowd that had expected a victory announcement. Considering the stakes, and the expectations, they managed well.

Speaking Friday, the gracious commissioner said state and local officials read for weeks in military and aviation journals that EADS was going to be the victor.

“Unfortunately, we started to believe them,” she said.

Mobile was looking forward to the opportunities EADS would create, particularly in the aftermath of last year’s Gulf oil spill, which Ludgood said has severely damaged the area’s fishing industry.

She said local leaders have not yet had a chance to discuss what happens next with EADS, or Mobile’s efforts to become an aerospace hub.

But Ludgood knew one thing: The Air Force deserves better than the ancient KC-135.

“That has to be the No. 1 consideration; getting our men and women the equipment they need,” she said.

“I’m afraid that sometimes gets lost.”

A politician speaks the truth. Does anyone have an absentee Alabama ballot?

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