A 10-year tango over the Air Force tanker contract dances on, leaving Spokane aerospace interests to anticipate potential effects.
Those aerospace interests gathered Thursday in Spokane to meet with Sen. Patty Murray to discuss what’s next in the Air Force’s quest to replace its aging fleet of KC-135 tankers.
The Pentagon has awarded and revoked the contract a couple times, but Murray said the winner should be announced in November or December. Boeing is one of the leading contenders for the $35 billion contract.
Murray said that while most people assume the aerospace business is limited to Washington’s West Side, she’s well aware that Spokane also is home to those jobs.
“This is an alarm bell I’ve been ringing a long time, since the first round of the tanker contract,” said Murray, a Democrat, in a talk before representatives from Fairchild, Inland Northwest Aerospace Coalition, Spokane International Airport, Spokane Community Colleges, city employees and community leaders.
Some Spokane employers say that if Boeing gets the contract, there will be expansion opportunities locally. Inland Northwest Lighthouse, a Seattle-based company that opened a Spokane site two years ago, manufactures clamps for Triumph Composite Systems Inc., an aerospace parts supplier. If Triumph sees increased business from a successful Boeing bid, Lighthouse will, too.
“We want anyone we are working with to be associated with the tanker program,” said Diana Crombie, Lighthouse director of quality.
The company employs 52 people in Spokane, 47 of whom are blind, deaf-blind, or blind with other disabilities.
Another company, Associated Painters, will open a Spokane facility in October. The company has painted aircraft for more than 30 years.
“It was the goal of the president to establish the infrastructure so we could work with the Department of Defense,” said company spokesman Stephen Bucy.
Business potentially generated by a Boeing contract could benefit the Spokane economy as a whole. Avista chief economist Randy Barcus said defense spending has a stabilizing effect for the economy and noted the recession could have been more severe without it.
Even though Boeing is no longer headquartered in Washington – it moved to Chicago in 2001 – it still is a major employer in the state. As of July, Boeing workers numbered 72,000 in Washington, down from 102,000 in 1997. And while Washington is home to the single largest number of Boeing employees, the company now employs almost 88,000 at its other locations.
The KC-135 tankers, which refuel jets in midair, were first built by Boeing in the 1950s. A refueling wing stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base is home to many of the aging tankers.
Murray said she fears the day that the bid is awarded overseas.
“If that line shut down we wouldn’t be likely to rebuild it because we would lose people who can engineer and build,” Murray said. “We cannot lose our aerospace capabilities.”
Murray’s visit came just days before Washington’s primary, where she’s facing a crowded field of challengers that include GOP hopefuls Dino Rossi and Clint Didier. The top two vote-getters in Tuesday’s election will advance to the November general election.
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