IN FOCUS: Boeing's departure fails to break cluster's Spirit

Wichita
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More than any other company, Boeing made Wichita the "Air Capital of the World". Beech, Cessna and Lear certainly played their part, but Boeing brought the mass production of B-29s here in the Second World War, B-47s and B-52Hs in the Cold War and finally the major fuselage sections for all of its commercial airliners. Around Boeing's factory in the southeast corner of the city arose a network of hundreds of mom-and-pop machine shops, many of which are still active today.

Boeing's corporate logo, however, is set to disappear from its historic Wichita factory in 2014, leaving the company without a direct presence in this south central Kansas community for the first time in 85 years.

When Boeing announced its decision to leave Wichita in January, the news was received here with shock and even anger.

The indignation of community officials was provoked partly by Boeing's broken promise to modify 767s into US Air Force KC-46 tankers at its Wichita factory. State and local officials gamely lobbied Congress and the White House on Boeing's behalf, with Boeing estimating its eventual victory would bring 7,500 jobs and an annual boost of $388 million to the state.

 

Spirit AerSystems' production campus in Wichita retains responsibility for the 737 fuselage from its pre-spin-off days

But Boeing's decision to shutter its last Wichita factory - after spinning off the commercial division in 2005, forming Spirit AeroSystems - also stoked fears about Wichita's continued viability as one of the last great clusters of aviation manufacturing.

"I think [Boeing's site closure] has a psychological impact on this city, simply because this plant and this relationship goes back to Bill Boeing buying the plant from Lloyd Stearman in 1929. That's a big psychological deal," says Jeff Turner, chief executive of Spirit AeroSystems and a Kansas native.

At the time of Boeing's announcement, the city's general aviation industry was still mired in recession. Now, suddenly the city's hopes for a tanker-fuelled jobs spurt were also gone, to be followed within two years by the more than 2,100 jobs still on Boeing's payroll at the Wichita site.

Could the perennially boom-and-bust aviation cluster in this land-locked city, which is so far removed geographically from the next closest industrial or logistical hub, survive yet another bust, and this time of a founding aircraft manufacturer and anchor tenant?

Ten months later, the answer to that question is an unqualified "yes".

"It's an emotional thing for this community but it's not as damaging to the cluster beyond the fact that it's a very emotional thing," says John O'Leary, the Airbus site leader in Wichita.

Indeed, the nature of the programmes tasked to Boeing's defence site limited its economic integration with the overall cluster. It has been decades since Boeing mass-produced bombers at the plant. The focus of the site had moved to support maintenance activity on specialised military aircraft fleets, including the VC-25, also designated as Air Force One when the US president is on board.

"We haven't seen a ripple effect as far as employment goes because [Boeing] made their announcement early this year," says Debra Teufel, managing director for business development at the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

Steve Wade, Boeing's site leader in Wichita, estimates that the vast bulk of the jobs being eliminated will not be removed from the payroll until the second half of next year. Even then, he does not expect the staff reductions to have a significant impact on Wichita's unemployment statistics.

"I think everybody that wants a job is going to have a job," Wade says. "The majority of our people that are staying here are retiring. We have a very ageing workforce and that was something we had been [trying to address in] the previous years anyway."

Wichita's aviation cluster has endured many hardships in its history, but it has never previously had to survive the departure of one of its founding aircraft makers. However, Boeing is withdrawing from Wichita mostly in title only. It may no longer participate directly in the aviation business on Wichita soil with a branded factory, but its economic impact in the cluster and statewide lives on in vast network of suppliers.

In fact, Boeing's presence in the cluster is expected to grow even after the defence factory is closed, with outlays to Kansas-based suppliers growing from $3.2 billion this year to $4.9 billion in 2014 or 2015, says Steve Wade.

The vast bulk of that increase will come from the galloping production rates at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, where output has reached a 12-year-high and continues to climb. Outside of Seattle, the biggest beneficiary of that production ramp increase is Spirit AeroSystems' production campus in Wichita, which retains responsibility for the 737 fuselage and major sections of the 767, 777 and 747 from its pre-spin-off days. Spirit AeroSystems also now builds the Section 41 nose section of the 787.

For most suppliers in the cluster, losing Boeing's defence operation is less noticeable than the increasing revenues flowing in from Spirit AeroSystems.

"We didn't want to see it happen, but I don't know of any machine shop that had all their eggs in that basket, or even half their eggs in that basket," says Ed Ball, vice-president of sales and marketing for Wichita-based Metal Finishing, referring to Boeing's exit. "Now if Spirit [AeroSystems] pulled out you would see turmoil like you've never seen." On 14 April, a massive tornado rolled directly over the Spirit AeroSystems complex. Amazingly, a skeleton crew of about 250 workers on a weekend shift escaped unharmed, but several buildings sustained severe damage. Production was halted for a week, and damage is still visible six months later.

In the end, the storm proved to be a significant aberration, and Spirit AeroSystems' major customers did not seem to become suddenly concerned about the environmental risk to such a strategic supplier.

"If anything, I think the way we were able to recover gave them confidence," Turner says. "The plant has been here since 1929. Taking a direct hit like we did, I'd be willing to bet actuarially isn't going to happen again for a little while."

 

In August 2011, Boeing launched the 737 Max programme to re-engine and update its existing narrowbody product, rather than launch an all-new airframe. The decision confirmed that Spirit AeroSystems would continue building 737 fuselages - with output rising from 420 to 504 airframes per year by 2014 at planned production increases - in Wichita for at least 10-15 more years.

At the same time, Spirit AeroSystems has made it clear that it will look beyond Wichita as it wins new business for suppliers other than Boeing. It has not made a decision, for example, on where it will manufacture the composite fuselage of the Sikorsky CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter, which remains in an extended development phase.

Perhaps more ominously, Spirit AeroSystems decided to exclude Wichita from its largest new programme in several years. Instead, the company opened a new factory in Kinston, North Carolina, to build fuselage structures and wing leading edges for the Airbus A350XWB. That decision made Spirit AeroSystems only the latest manufacturer to establish new aerospace manufacturing sites in the US southeast, along with Airbus in Mobile, Alabama; Boeing in North Charleston, South Carolina; and HondaJet in Greensboro, North Carolina.

But Turner notes that the decision to build a factory in Kinston had nothing to do with Wichita's competitiveness, and everything to do with its geography.

"For the A350 we went to North Carolina because we were going to ship big product by sea, and shipping big product by sea from Wichita is challenging," he says.

Turner also defends Wichita's competitive standing in the increasingly globalised aerospace industry.

"Over the last 20 years we've offloaded a lot of work," Turner says. "We have a global supply chain. There are parts of the world that 15 years ago were highly attractive to offload work [to] because of labour rates that are now more expensive than if we do it here."

The good news for the Wichita aviation cluster is that it makes no economic sense for Spirit AeroSystems to move the existing Boeing product lines elsewhere, and Boeing plans to continue building the same aircraft it is building today for at least another decade and perhaps even longer. The appeal of low-cost manufacturing in other non-unionised US states or developing countries still does not compete with the kind of work Spirit AeroSystems performs in Wichita.

"If you look at this industry, it does not cluster itself in low-labour rate entry-level job environments and I frankly don't see that changing," Turner says. "It's a highly engineered product, and it's a highly engineered process, but it's not totally automated. You'll never be able to put this factory in and have it stamp out the parts."

At some point, Boeing, the prime customer of Spirit AeroSystems' products from Wichita, will decide to make another all-new aircraft. Most likely, the next new airframe will be launched in the mid-2020s to replace the venerable 737. At that time, Spirit AeroSystems will have to compete on price and experience with the rest of Boeing's supply chain, which now includes a rapidly growing workforce in Charleston.

"Now that we are an independent company, we know what market rates are for product and this is a very efficient and effective factory," Turner says. "Will it be long-term? I think it will be long-term."