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Originally published December 19, 2011 at 9:13 AM | Page modified December 19, 2011 at 10:33 PM

Kansans say Boeing poised to do all tanker work here

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.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., said Monday a Boeing executive had told him definitively that completion work on the Air Force 767 tankers will not be done at the company's defense facility in Wichita.

Boeing would not confirm his assertion, but if it happens, that would likely mean the defense plant's closure and 2,100 layoffs in Wichita.

It would bring several thousand additional Air Force tanker jobs to Washington state, where the work would be done instead.

In an interview, Pompeo did not name the Boeing official who conveyed the news. But he said "this was a very senior member of the Boeing company, speaking on behalf of the Boeing company at a formal meeting."

Last month, Boeing acknowledged it is studying the future of the Wichita facility, including the possibility of closure. It cited "limited prospects for future work" as the reason.

Under Boeing's recent contract agreement with the Machinists union, the work of completing the Air Force 767 refueling tankers must go to the company's Puget Sound-area factories if it isn't done in Kansas.

When Boeing was competing to win the tanker contract in spring 2010, it claimed the tanker 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 completion work comes here instead, because structural modifications would be done on the Everett assembly line 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, and additional indirect jobs would be created as well.

On Monday, after Pompeo held a news conference in Wichita flanked by union officials and the city's mayor, Boeing stuck to its November statement that it won't complete its study until the end of the year or in early 2012.

"We'll make an announcement as soon as we are able," said Boeing spokesman Jarrod Bartlett.

One factor motivating Boeing to consider moving the tanker work is the success in Renton 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 assembled in the factories here and flown to the Wichita defense unit 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 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 plant, other work there — including modification and engineering support of Air Force One and other government and military jets that are derivatives of 737s, 757s, and 747s, as well as the B-52 bomber fleet — would be dispersed to Boeing facilities around the U.S.

Bob Brewer, Midwest director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, said "a lot of people believe it's a done deal."

Brewer decried the prospect that Boeing could walk away from its 2010 commitment to put tanker jobs in Kansas.

"For the government programs we specialize in — tanker, Air Force One, B-52 — we've got skills, talents and resources available here that are unmatched elsewhere in the country," Brewer said.

Pompeo, formerly CEO of an aerospace company and defense contractor, said Boeing had given Wichita "seven years of promises" over the course of the long tanker contest.

"To convince the U.S. Air Force to pick Boeing over Airbus, statements were made to federal officials and members of the U.S. Air Force, saying that we're going to build the tanker finishing center in Wichita," said Pompeo. "Now those workers are facing a Boeing Company intent on walking away. It's not right."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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