By Dominic Gates The Seattle Times
PARIS — Airbus lost the long and contentious bidding to build an aerial-refueling tanker for the U.S. Air Force, but Airbus Americas Chairman Allan McArtor asserts there are signs that the Boeing Co. will stumble and give its rival a renewed opportunity.
“I think we’ll get another shot at it,” said McArtor in an interview at the Paris Air Show.
He also said that Airbus, which has U.S. engineering centers in Wichita, Kan., and Mobile, Ala., is likely to add two more in the next decade and will seriously consider locating one in Washington state.
“We are attracted to Washington state for the same reason we were attracted to Wichita. That’s where the talent is,” he said. “If you want to have access to the talent that developed over the last 100 years of aviation, Washington is very fertile ground.”
Those startling ideas came from Airbus’ top man in America, who has probably the most exceptional aviation resume of any aerospace executive in the U.S.
A highly decorated combat-fighter pilot in Vietnam, he was an associate professor of engineering at the Air Force Academy, then flew as a pilot in the Air Force Thunderbirds flying-display team.
Afterward, he headed air operations at FedEx, and under President Ronald Reagan he was head of the Federal Aviation Administration for two years.
Immediately before joining Airbus, he was chief executive of Legend Airlines, a regional carrier based in Dallas.
Airbus has already broken ground in Mobile to construct a final-assembly plant, its first airplane factory in the U.S., for the single-aisle A320 family. It is scheduled to deliver the plant’s first plane to JetBlue in January 2016.
He said that presence will reshape U.S. views about Airbus.
“It does change things,” he said. “It was the same with the acceptance of Toyota, Hyundai or Mercedes coming to the U.S. They were accepted as U.S. industrial citizens. We’re seeing attitudes change.”
McArtor predicted that in 10 years Airbus will build “more than just A320s in Mobile.”
He said that the wide-body A330 could still be in production then and could be built in Mobile, perhaps as a military conversion to a freighter — or a tanker.
The $35 billion tanker contract, awarded in 2011 after years of controversy, means Boeing will initially build 179 of its 767-based tankers to replace the Air Force KC-135 tankers.
Boeing must design, develop, manufacture and deliver the first 18 combat-ready airplanes by 2017. The first tanker should fly in 2015. All of that work is happening in Everett and Seattle.
McArtor insisted he’s serious in thinking that “we’ll get another shot at the tanker business some years out.”
“It depends how successful Boeing is. If they can’t perform the mission or solve the weight problem, we may be invited back faster than you think,” he said.
Asked what “weight problem” he meant, McArtor scoffed at the fact that Boeing is not putting thrust reversers on its KC-46A tanker. “That’s one indication” of a drive to save weight, he said.
Thrust reversers are part of the engine system that the pilot activates on landing to help brake the plane so it can land in a shorter distance.
A source familiar with the tanker proposal who asked not to be named confirmed that the Boeing KC-46A tanker has no thrust reversers but added that they were not part of the Air Force requirement.
McArtor laughed at the notion of leaving out thrust reversers because it would mean the tanker needs a longer landing strip. He compared it to a car without brakes.
Reached in Seattle, Boeing tanker spokesman Jerry Drelling said that Boeing’s tanker is on track. Mechanics are already building refueling booms in Seattle and will begin fabricating the spars for the first tanker next week in Everett.
“We’ve met all our program milestones on or ahead of schedule,” Drelling said. “We remain on track to deliver the first 18 combat-ready tankers by 2017.”
On the weight issue, Drelling said, “Our most recent weight forecast for the KC-46A tanker validates that we remain on plan to meet the U.S. Air Force’s multi-mission requirements.”
As for Airbus in Washington, McArtor said he met Wednesday with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who headed the state’s delegation to the air show. He said Larsen wanted to “make sure Airbus felt welcome” in the state.
“He didn’t need to convince me,” said McArtor. “It’s clearly the home of Boeing, but it’s also the center of aerospace activity. Hopefully, we can do a lot of business there.”
He noted that Airbus likely wouldn’t locate an industrial facility there but is “very interested in cultivating more suppliers out of Washington state” and also will consider an engineering center.
He said he told Larsen that Airbus wants to know the universities and trade schools in the state.
“We want to know how to gain access to them, how to cooperate with them,” he said. “There’s every opportunity for engineering in Washington state. There’s no question there’s engineering talent.”