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Boeing’s woes mean rising anxiety in Wichita, Kansas, the 'Air Capital of the World'

Boeing is in talks to buy Spirit AeroSystems, the supplier that builds the fuselage of the 737 at its factory in Wichita, Kan.
Courtesy of Spirit AeroSystems
Boeing is in talks to buy Spirit AeroSystems, the supplier that builds the fuselage of the 737 at its factory in Wichita, Kan.

WICHITA, Kan. — Not everyone in the self-proclaimed “Air Capital of the World” works in the aviation industry, though it seems like everybody here knows someone who does.

That’s why the entire city has a stake in what happens to Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, a key supplier that builds the fuselage for the 737 at a sprawling factory on the southern edge of town.

"Wichita and Spirit have a connection," said Matt Mahon, who's worked in the company's 737 factory as a mechanic for six years. "What’s good for one is good for the other."

Travelers everywhere have been nervous to fly since a door plug panel blew off a Boeing 737 in midair in January. But the fallout from that incident is causing extra anxiety 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 flying public. That prompted Spirit to announce last month that it’s cutting about 400 hourly jobs.

"People are feeling a little sad, a little down about that," said Karmen Potts, a longtime Spirit employee who’s been working at the Wichita plant for 28 years. "Especially the people with the lower seniority. But even seasoned people like me, you hate to see someone lose their job."

Potts isn't the only member of her family who's employed by Spirit. Her husband works at the factory. And at various times, their children have too.

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

Now Boeing is in talks to buy Spirit, effectively reversing a two-decade effort to outsource major parts of its production process. That deal is expected to reunite Boeing with the Wichita factory that’s been building the fuselage for 737 jets since the 1960s.

But negotiations have been complicated because Spirit also supplies parts for Airbus, Boeing’s major rival in commercial aviation.

All of that leaves Wichita wondering exactly what comes next.

“I do think there's a little bit of angst in our community just to know what the solution is,” says Ben Sauceda, the president of the Kansas Aviation Museum. “I think we’re still waiting on some of those answers.”

Long history of aviation in Wichita

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

The city’s aviation history stretches back even further than that. Wichita first claimed the title of “Air Capital of The World” during the 1920s, when there were more than a dozen airplane manufacturers here — drawn in part by the constant and steady winds of the Great Plains.

 Kansas Aviation Museum president Ben Sauceda stands next to a replica of a Laird Swallow, originally produced in Wichita in the 1920s.
Joel Rose / NPR
/
NPR
Kansas Aviation Museum president Ben Sauceda stands next to a replica of a Laird Swallow, originally produced in Wichita in the 1920s.

“The wind had a lot to do with it,” Sauceda said. “It was a good environment for them to really take off, practice, study, develop, perfect it.”

Wichita built on its reputation during World War II, when Boeing built the B-29 Superfortress here. That same factory building is part of the campus where Spirit makes the fuselage for the 737 and other Boeing jets today.

Spirit is the biggest employer in Wichita, with more than 12,000 employees. Cessna, Beechcraft and Bombardier are major aviation employers too, along with hundreds of smaller suppliers.

Wichita has seen ups and downs before

Turbulence in the aviation industry is nothing new for Wichita.

“Certainly if you look at the history of aviation, there's a lot of those blips on the radar,” said Sheree Utash, the president of Wichita State University Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology. “So we're pretty accustomed to that in Wichita.”

 Sheree Utash, president of the Wichita State University Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology, at her desk.
Joel Rose / NPR
/
NPR
Sheree Utash, president of the Wichita State University Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology, at her desk.

Utash oversees a two-year technical program that’s designed to prepare students for jobs in the aviation industry. In past downturns, Utash says her school was forced to put some of those programs on hold, or modify them to help workers who’d been laid off acquire new skills.

But the current problems with Boeing and Spirit seem less severe, Utash says, because the global demand for new planes is still strong.

“This is kind of like hitting a pause button for a second. How long does it last?,” Utash said. “I don't think it's going to have a huge ripple effect across the industry. I hope I'm right, hope that's true.”

A lot of people in Wichita are hoping the same thing — both for the sake of those who work at Spirit, and everyone else who’s depending on them.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.