By Susanna Ray, Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — Boeing risks a shortage of experienced employees to maintain Air Force One, the jumbo jet that flies the U.S. president, as the company shifts the work to Texas from Kansas, according to an Air Force letter.
Building a qualified staff in San Antonio, either with new hires or personnel transfers, “is one of the most important aspects of the move yet least successful to date,” the Air Force wrote to Boeing in a July 30 letter obtained by Bloomberg News from a person who isn’t authorized to comment publicly.
The maintenance, done under contract, is being sent to Texas as part of Boeing’s Jan. 4 plan to shut its 83-year-old operations in Wichita, Kansas, as U.S. defense spending shrinks. Mechanics and other Air Force One specialists must have five years’ experience on that jet or on comparable special-mission planes, wrote Margaret Wright, an Air Force contracting officer.
“Boeing’s relocation effort will challenge every aspect of the program,” Wright wrote in the letter. Supporting Air Force One “requires nothing less than a seamless relocation effort.”
Wright told Chicago-based Boeing to provide a detailed plan by mid-August on how it would retain and train personnel for heavy maintenance on the two 747-200B’s used as Air Force One. Daryl Mayer, an Air Force spokesman, said in a Sept. 7 emailed response to questions that Boeing was asked for data about its San Antonio workers’ experience.
“Numerous letters” have been exchanged between the planemaker and the government about the matter, Mayer wrote, without saying whether Boeing’s reply to the government had been acceptable.
A Boeing spokeswoman, Yvonne Johnson-Jones, referred questions to the Air Force and declined to give details on how many employees work on the Air Force One program. Boeing said in January that as many as 400 jobs would be added in San Antonio, some through transfers.
Seven members of Boeing’s engineer union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, were offered transfers to Texas, and none accepted, the work group said. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said no members had agreed to move.
The four-engine jumbo jets that serve as Air Force One have been modified for midair refueling, giving them unlimited range, according to the White House. The two current 747s began flying in 1990 and have a projected service life of 30 years.
They feature electronics hardened against an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast, communications gear that can allow the president to direct the armed forces while airborne, and a medical suite that can function as an operating room.
“You’re not going to get a regular guy off the street to work on this airplane,” said Mitch Geraci, an assistant professor of aviation maintenance science at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida who spent more than 20 years in maintenance work at carriers including United Airlines.
One or the other of the Air Force One planes is in Wichita for service about every eight months, according to a person familiar with the work. The next jet is due for service at the start of 2013, another person said. Getting the security clearance needed to work on Air Force can take as long as two years, a third person said.
In shifting the program to Texas, less-frequent or different maintenance schedules aren’t acceptable, and neither is “accepting less than presidential quality,” Wright wrote to Boeing. “It goes without saying, failure is not an option.”
She wrote that “the government’s overall concern is related to the low number of targeted Wichita personnel offered positions in San Antonio” and to having too-few workers in the Texas city who meet the standards for Air Force One maintenance.
“It’s anticipated” Boeing won’t be able to fulfill contract requirements “in the area of experienced personnel,” according to Wright’s letter.
More than a month after Wright’s letter, the Air Force’s Mayer wrote in his e-mail: “At this time the USAF has no reason to believe Boeing won’t meet all the terms and conditions of their respective contracts during this transition.”
Boeing’s Wichita shutdown plan called for sending work on different aircraft programs to Oklahoma City and Seattle, where its commercial hub is located, as well as to San Antonio. The cheaper, rented Texas facility opened in 1998, and employees there have worked on military planes, including the Air Force’s Kansas-built KC-135 tankers.
Wichita is known as the “Air Capital of the World,” with planemakers including Textron Inc.’s Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft Inc. and Bombardier Inc.’s Learjet all based there. Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc. builds the fuselages for Boeing’s 737 jets there, along with sections of every other Boeing airliner.
Boeing at one time employed 40,000 in the city, a workforce that has dwindled to 2,160, concentrated on maintenance, repair and overhaul work for the company’s military aircraft.
Aircraft mechanics have to be certified for each model of every plane they work on, said Geraci, the professor. The aerospace industry is in a “human factors” push now, recognizing that people are the weakest link in the aviation- safety chain and that training and experience are vital, he said.
“You can’t beat experience,” Geraci said in an interview. Air Force One “is carrying a very important person. Oversight is key.”
Ray reported from Seattle.