One of my final acts as governor was to orchestrate an incentive package that will keep Hawker Beechcraft’s headquarters and final assembly for all of its product lines in Wichita for the next 10 years. We came to a similar agreement with Bombardier Aerospace last summer.
Both acts give rise to two questions. The first is whether the state should invest in general aviation. The second is whether Wichita is turning into another Detroit.
The state should invest in general aviation because it is enormously important to our economic future. The numbers speak for themselves.
Wichita has produced more airplanes than any city in history. We currently make more than 40 percent of all the general aviation planes built in the world. Five of the seven largest employers in Kansas are in the aircraft industry. And there are hundreds of suppliers, with more than 100,000 employees, that support the industry.
Now, I’m fully aware of the devastating impact that this recession has had on the industry. Companies have had to lay off tens of thousands of Kansas workers. Some question whether the industry will ever recover.
Recovery will occur. Around the world, demographics are changing and economies are growing, including in the United States, and this will create demand for small airplanes.
Indeed, the industry went through similar declines in 1981, 1991 and 2002, and came back stronger than ever each time. This is the nature of a product that is sensitive to financial downturns.
But the gloom-and-doomers say that it’s “different this time.” That there will be a recovery, but it won’t include Wichita because it’s cheaper to make planes in China, Mexico or even nonunion Southern states. The inevitable comparison is made to Detroit.
Wichita will not become the next Detroit for several reasons.
First, we’ve already broken the pattern. Bombardier and Hawker could have left, but they did not. We kept them here.
Second, we make great airplanes. Detroit suffered because for 20 years it was making an inferior product. In the 1970s and ’80s, the foreign manufacturers were building better cars, which allowed them to create a major foothold in the United States.
This is not true with airplanes. Yes, Brazil, Mexico, China and others are building small planes, but our companies build quality planes.
Third, we really are the “Air Capital of the World.” We have a reservoir of knowledge here that another state or Third World country can’t replicate overnight.
We have the best-trained work force in the world, and we continue to commit to that work force with investments such as the National Center for Aviation Training. We have cutting-edge technology and continue to commit to it as well with investments such as the National Institute for Aviation Research.
None of this means that our success is certain. There are still ways that Kansas could blow it. We could take away our advantages by turning our back on NIAR, NCAT or the engineering schools at Wichita State University and other universities. Our companies could derail our success by building inferior planes. Our workers could cause problems by making production noncompetitive.
But I believe in Wichita and in Kansas. I believe in the leaders of our aircraft companies and our unions, and I believe in the dedication of our work force.
We will come back. And the investments authorized by a lame-duck governor on his way out of office will be a small price compared with the benefits Wichita will see once we fully recover.