With the Kansas aviation industry hurt by the grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said Friday he wants to carve out new work for the sector apart from Boeing.
Specifically, he said, there’s an opportunity for Kansas with the enormous $738 billion in defense spending just approved by President Trump for 2020.
Moran said he asked the president in a phone call before Christmas for more defense work for Kansas as Wichita’s aerospace industry absorbs Boeing’s plan to suspend MAX production starting in January.
“The president expressed support, and I’ve also talked to a number of people in the Department of Defense, including acquisition people, and there is a real interest,” Moran said.
Even so, he noted, it takes a long time for the government to procure new defense contracts for equipment and planes.
“It doesn’t happen quickly enough to solve the problems between now and March,” Moran said. “But if it happens it’s still a good thing for Kansas, and a good thing for the companies in Kansas, the employees in Kansas, because it diversifies the book of business, meaning we’re not so reliant upon Boeing.”
Moran made the comments in Hays after stopping in town to formally present Ellis County with a $6.5 million federal highway grant.
Asked afterward about Boeing, he noted his concern for Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, a Boeing supplier that makes the MAX fuselage. News photos of Spirit’s parking lot have shown row upon row of the unwanted main body sections parked idle with no place to go.
“People who are accustomed to a paycheck may not get that paycheck because what happens at Boeing has immediate and direct consequences to Wichita, to south-central Kansas, to the aviation industry,” Moran said. “Spirit, in particular, employs 12,500 people in Kansas and they manufacture 90% of the 737.”
The problem extends beyond that too, he said.
“This is not just Spirit, there’s a lot of smaller companies that employ 10 people or 100 people, that are contractors of Spirit and Boeing, who work on the MAX,” he said.
He expressed concern about news reports that Boeing’s former CEO had offered reassurances to President Trump.
“I read this in the press, the Boeing president had said to President Trump — the former president of Boeing — things are fine, we’re not going to lay off anybody,” Moran said. “But when 90% of the work is done in Kansas, he can’t speak for us. The problems are potentially significant and serious.”
Once the MAX is re-certified to fly by U.S. air regulators, the work will return in pretty short order, he said, but there are only rumors on when that might be.
The Federal Aviation Agency grounded the plane last March.
“What FAA seems to indicate, but no one will ever put an exact time, there is some belief that a certification of the MAX could occur in March,” he said. “But I don’t know if that’s true.”
According to Boeing, which recently fired CEO Dennis Muilenburg over the MAX debacle, the company has almost 5,000 orders for the plane from more than 100 customers worldwide.
Some 40 countries have banned it from their airspace after the two crashes that killed 346 people in six months, one in October 2018 and the second in March 2019.
This fall, Boeing company statements were saying the plane could be back in the air before year’s end. More recently it moved that back to January.
Even though Kansas aerospace jobs are riding on production of the Boeing 737 MAX, Moran said FAA re-certification should be based on safety.
“This should not be made based upon politics,” he said, noting that’s what he’s told the FAA.
“Base this on safety and scientific evidence as to whether or not the plane should be grounded,” he said. “I don’t want it certified until science and safety say it’s safe. But the sooner that can be accomplished, the less likely there are for consequences for workers in Kansas.”
United Airlines hasn’t scheduled flights on the MAX until early June, while American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have MAX flights scheduled for early April. American has said that since the MAX grounding it’s had to cancel almost 46,000 flights.
“There is an effort,” Moran said, “to get not only the FAA, but other countries’ similar services to certify at the same time, so that every FAA-type agency in the world says that the MAX is safe.”
According to Boeing, the company has delivered more than 380 of the MAX jetliners to more than 50 airlines.
When asked his feelings about the company after hearing testimony and questioning Muilenburg during Senate hearings on the jetliner’s safety crisis, Moran stressed the need for a culture of safety at Boeing.
“I understand a business has to make profit, but you don’t make profit if you don’t take care of your customers, and that involves safety,” Moran said. “Boeing needs to focus on safety, for their own well being, but certainly for the lives and well-being of Americans and people around the world.”