Good news worth waiting for: Boeing tanker contract

When the Boeing Co. was awarded the $35 billion bid to build the next generation of aerial tankers for the U.S. Air Force last week, you could almost hear a sigh of relief across the entire state.

Finally, some good economic news for Washington state.

Landing the tanker contract, which has been in play for a decade, is terrific news for Washington state, 11,000 tanker construction jobs will be created or kept active, and for the state of Kansas where another 7,500 Boeing jobs will be created.

Boeing officials say the contract will result in more than 50,000 jobs when the jobs from more than 800 suppliers in more than 40 states are included.

The contract announcement is a defeat for Boeing’s longtime nemesis, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS), which builds European-based Airbus airplanes. Lawmakers from the Gulf Coast region were pulling for EADS/Airbus in the spirited bidding war because company officials had promised to build an assembly plant in Mobile, Ala.

The fight isn’t over. But the contract decision is a great relief to Washington’s elected officials and business leaders who have lobbied fiercely on Boeing’s behalf.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, who, along with the state Legislature, is struggling to fill a $4.6 billion budget shortfall, sounded almost giddy in her press release within minutes of the announcement.

“What a great day for The Boeing Company, and for the 11,000 aerospace workers in Washington state alone that will play a role in assembling the NewGen tanker,” Gregoire said. “Following an open, transparent process, the Department of Defense realized what I’ve been saying all along — and that is that Boeing has designed the safest, most cost-effective tanker to serve both our military and our taxpayers well.”

We would argue that no lawmaker has put more pressure on the Air Force and the Department of Defense than U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. The Washington Democrat has dogged the Pentagon every step of the way, insisting on a fair and balanced review of the competing bids. She has been especially active since the first Air Force tanker contract was award to Airbus, then self-imploded.

The tanker competition has stretched over more than nine years and has been marked by a major Pentagon procurement scandal. When the contract was first put up for bidding, EADS teamed with U.S.-based Northrop Grumman to win the contract. But the Government Accountability Office upheld a protest filed by Boeing and overturned the contract.

So victory this time around was especially sweet for Murray.

“Today’s long-awaited decision by the Pentagon is the right one for our military, our taxpayers and our nation’s aerospace workers,” Murray said. “At a time when our economy is hurting and good-paying aerospace jobs are critical to our recovery, this decision is great news for the skilled workers of Everett and the thousands of suppliers across the country who will help build this critical tanker for our Air Force.”

Murray couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a swipe at Airbus. She said, “Even when competing against an illegally subsidized foreign competitor, Boeing’s skilled workforce proved that they have the know-how and the product that can best serve our military. And it is finally time to get this Boeing tanker into the hands of our men and women in uniform.”

Murray was alluding to last June’s ruling by the World Trade Organization that four European governments had provided illegal subsidies over the past 40 years for every jet Airbus built and that Boeing and the American aerospace industry paid a steep price for the unfair competition.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, said, the refuling tanker award will have an annual regional impact of nearly $693 million and means that for a long time to come the Northwest will continue its excellence in aviation manufacturing.

The new Air Force contract calls for producing 179 new tankers. But the deal eventually could be worth more than $100 billion as the Air Force replaces its fleet of 600 or so Eisenhower-era tankers.

The course ahead is unclear. EADs could appeal the contract award and Boeing opponents in Congress might attempt to derail funding.

While battles may lie ahead, there can be no doubt that landing the tanker contract is terrific news for Washington state, our aerospace workers and the state economy.

Like we said, finally, some good news.