Frank Morris for NPR
Hawker Beechcraft Corp. has cut more than 2,000 jobs amid the industry downturn.
Hawker Beechcraft Corp. has cut more than 2,000 jobs amid the industry downturn. Frank Morris for NPR
Frank Morris for NPR
Charles Mayer of Hawker Beechcraft Corp. says that when Detroit CEOs rode corporate jets to Washington seeking federal bailouts, "it sent a wrong message; it made us groan."
Charles Mayer of Hawker Beechcraft Corp. says that when Detroit CEOs rode corporate jets to Washington seeking federal bailouts, "it sent a wrong message; it made us groan." Frank Morris for NPR
Nothing says money and power like a business jet. But the industry that makes them is in a tailspin. Small airplane manufacturing is dominated by American firms, many located in Wichita, Kan., proudly known as the "air capital."
"There is not an airport in the world that doesn't have an aircraft that the city of Wichita and its workers have not touched," Mayor Carl Brewer says.
In fact, the Wichita area builds more aircraft than any other place on Earth. Companies here specialize in propeller-driven craft, and smaller corporate jets like the ones on display in Cessna Aircraft Co.'s showroom.
Jack Pelton, Cessna's chairman, president and CEO, shows off a Citation XLS Plus, the company's midsize business jet. Price tag: just over $10 million. It's Cessna's top-selling jet, and this time last year, the backlog stretched almost three years.
Poor Traffic At The Convention
But, then in October, at the big industry convention, Pelton felt the earth shift beneath his feet.
"I was in Orlando, Fla., in our Cessna display and booth on the last day of the convention," Pelton recalls. "It has three mock-ups in it; it's got a huge, Jumbotron-type display. Standing there feeling like the loneliest man on the planet. The traffic just was not there."
In fact, the use of business jets like Cessna's fell 20 percent. New orders ceased, and when customers called, it was to cancel or delay purchases. Cessna cut 4,600 people — a third of its workforce.
Corporate Jet Backlash
And then a public relations problem jumped up to pummel the industry. Last fall, the heads of Detroit's automakers were lambasted for flying luxury private jets to Washington to ask for a bailout of their industry.
"It's an easy target," says Charles Mayer, vice president of marketing at Hawker Beechcraft Corp., another jet producer. "It's an easy populist sound bite. It was a flashpoint, when the Detroit CEOs showed up with their hands out begging for money in big jets. It sent a wrong message; it made us groan."
Customers groaned, too. Mayer says some delayed purchases, fearing bad publicity. That, in turn, crimped cash flow, sparking further cuts on the production floor.
"I need to cut costs today — immediately. There's only one place, unfortunately, that has an immediate impact, and that's workers," Mayer says.
'What Am I Going To Do?'
A trailer park on the edge of town seems a long way from Wichita's palatial jet showrooms, but like the rest of the city, it's related. Kevin Bell lives here with his daughter, granddaughter and chronically ill wife. He's one of more than 2,000 workers cut from Hawker Beechcraft.
"I'm a 55-year-old fat man," Bell says. "What am I going to do? If they're laying off, where am I going to find work at my age?"
All told, Wichita aviation companies are laying off at least 9,000 people. The fallout from those cuts could cost this city 25,000 more jobs and leave people like Bell pretty much out of luck.
"I can't see past the next set of bills that comes due. Shoot, I can't see past the end of my driveway anymore. I don't know what to do," Bell says.
Training For The Future
Pat Hanrahan, head of the local United Way, is setting up a one-stop center to help displaced workers plug into social services and job training. He's done it before.
"Wichita is cyclical in the aircraft industry," Hanrahan says. "United Way actually was the creator of the laid-off workers concept back in 1983, did it again in , and certainly after 9/11."
Meanwhile, the city is bracing for a plunge in tax revenue that it knows is coming. It's also looking past the crisis.
Workers are laying the foundation for a $40 million aviation vocational technical training center. It may sound crazy to pour money into training new airplane factory workers when thousands sit idle, but not to Mayor Brewer.
He says the school will help Wichita hang on to and develop its skilled workforce. That way, when the world comes looking for business planes again, Wichita will still be ready to produce them.
Frank Morris reports from member station KCUR.