June 22, 2024

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Boeing’s Problems Mean Growing Concern in Wichita: NPR

Boeing’s Problems Mean Growing Concern in Wichita: NPR

Boeing is in talks to buy Spirit AeroSystems, the supplier that is building the 737 fuselage at its factory in Wichita, Kansas.

Courtesy of Spirit AeroSystems

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Courtesy of Spirit AeroSystems

WICHITA, Kan. — Not everyone in the so-called “Aviation Capital of the World” works in the aviation industry, although it seems like everyone here knows someone who does.

That’s why the entire city has a stake in what happens to Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, the main supplier that is building the fuselage for the 737 at a sprawling factory on the city’s south end.

“There’s a connection between Wichita and Spirit,” said Matt Mahon, who worked as a mechanic at the company’s 737 plant for six years. “What is good for one is good for another.”

Travelers everywhere have been wary of flying ever since a door connection panel on a Boeing 737 exploded in midair in January. But the fallout from that incident is causing more concern in Wichita, a city with deep ties to the aviation industry.

Boeing and Spirit have cut production of the 737 as the companies look to rebuild trust with federal regulators and the aviation public. That prompted Spirit to announce last month that it was eliminating about 400 hourly jobs.

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“People are feeling a little sad, a little frustrated about it,” said Carmen Potts, a longtime Spirit employee who has worked at the Wichita plant for 28 years. “Especially people with less seniority. But even experienced people like me, you hate to see someone lose their job.”

Potts isn’t the only member of her family working for Spirit. Her husband works in the factory. And at different times, so do their children.

“I was able to send three kids to college,” Potts said in an interview. “I’ve had a great life. I don’t have a college degree. So I can’t complain at all.”

Boeing is now in talks to buy Spirit, effectively reversing a two-decade-long effort to outsource key parts of its production process. The deal is expected to reunite Boeing with the Wichita plant, which has been building fuselages for 737s since the 1960s.

But negotiations were complicated because Spirit also supplies parts to Airbus, Boeing’s main competitor in commercial aviation.

All of this leaves Wichita wondering exactly what comes next.

“I think there’s a little bit of anxiety in our community just knowing what the solution is,” says Ben Sauceda, president of the Kansas Air Museum. “I think we’re still waiting for some of those answers.”

A long history of aviation in Wichita

The Museum of Aviation is located less than a mile from the Spirit University campus, in an Art Deco building that used to house Wichita’s first municipal airport starting in the 1930s.

The city’s aviation history extends even further. Wichita first earned the title of “Aviation Capital of the World” during the 1920s, when more than a dozen aircraft manufacturers were based here—attracted in part by the constant, steady winds of the Great Plains.

“The wind had a lot to do with it,” Sauceda said. “It was a good environment for them to get out there, practice, study, develop and perfect it.”

Wichita built on its reputation during World War II, when Boeing built the B-29 Superfortress here. The factory building itself is part of the campus where Spirit manufactures fuselages for the 737 and other Boeing aircraft today.

Spirit is Wichita’s largest employer, with more than 12,000 employees. Cessna, Beechcraft and Bombardier are also major employers in aviation, along with hundreds of smaller suppliers.

Wichita has seen ups and downs before

Disruption in the airline industry is nothing new for Wichita.

“Certainly if you look at the history of aviation, there are a lot of those blips on the radar,” said Sherri Otash, head of the Wichita State University of Applied Science and Technology campus. “So we’re used to that in Wichita.”

Sherri Otash, Wichita State University of Applied Science and Technology Campus President, in her office.

Sherri Otash, Wichita State University of Applied Science and Technology Campus President, in her office.

Joel Rose/NPR

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Joel Rose/NPR

Yutash supervises a two-year technical program designed to prepare students for careers in the aviation industry. In past recessions, Yutas says her school has had to suspend or modify some of these programs to help laid-off workers gain new skills.

But the current problems with Boeing and Spirit appear less serious, Yutas says, because global demand for new planes remains strong.

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“It’s like pressing the pause button for one second. How long does it last?” Yutas said. “I don’t think it’s going to have a huge ripple effect across the industry. “I hope I’m right, I hope it’s true.”

Many people in Wichita hope the same thing — both for those who work at Spirit, and for everyone else who depends on them.