Boeing Machinists, politicians rally for Air Force tanker contract

EVERETT — It’s been a long road for Boeing Co. workers who want to see their company land a lucrative tanker contract with the U.S. government.

“Let’s hope that this year we actually get to start building the Air Force refueling tanker,” Tom Wroblewski told members of his union who rallied Friday in support of Boeing’s tanker bid.

After one decade and two previous attempts, the Air Force expects to pick a winner to replace its aging Boeing-built KC-135 tanker fleet this year.

The Pentagon is expected to release its final set of requirements for the $35 billion aerial refueling tanker contest as soon as Tuesday. A Boeing win would secure thousands of jobs in Everett for the next decade.

“It is clear that in the biggest downturn in our economy in the last 50 years, America needs jobs,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Boeing backers insist that awarding the contract to the company’s competitor, duo Northrop Grumman and EADS, would be a blow to American workers. The pair’s tanker is based on the A330 commercial jet made by Airbus, a Toulouse, France-based company. Northrop and EADS say they would assemble their KC-30 tanker in Mobile, Ala., creating jobs in the South as well as for suppliers across the United States.

Of late, however, Northrop has hinted at skipping the contest altogether. In December, Northrop chief executive Wes Bush wrote to Pentagon officials to warn them the defense contractor will bow out of the tanker contest unless “meaningful changes” were made to the final requirements. Northrop’s Bush felt the Air Force, in its initial rules, showed a “clear preference” for Boeing’s 767-based tanker, which is smaller than Northrop’s KC-30.

Boeing hasn’t confirmed that it will offer a 767-based tanker, saying it’s waiting to read the Air Force’s final rules. But industry observers say Boeing’s KC-767 is a safe bet. And Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., touted the 767’s fuel efficiency over Northrop’s KC-30.

“This is the most fuel-efficient airplane the Air Force has had,” he said.

The mood Friday in the Machinists Hall was one of optimism — a feeling that this time Boeing finally will win the Air Force’s tanker contest. Two years ago, the mood in the hall during a tanker rally couldn’t have been more different. On Feb. 29, 2008, the Air Force shocked aerospace analysts and Boeing workers alike by picking Northrop’s tanker. That award eventually was halted when government auditors declared the Air Force’s competition flawed.

Members of Washington state’s Congressional delegation said Friday they intend to make sure Boeing gets a fair shake this time around. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said he’ll be concerned if the Air Force seems to favor a “plus-sized tanker” like Northrop’s or if the Pentagon fails to take into consideration the costs associated with each aircraft over its lifetime.

Boeing’s supporters in Congress and workers in Everett won’t be the only ones rooting for the company in this contest. Gov. Chris Gregoire and the governors of seven other states have formed a coalition to lobby for Boeing’s tanker. Gregoire will be in Washington D.C., on Monday to kick off that group’s campaign.

“Boeing has a long history of making great tankers and is ready to start with these today,” Gregoire said, in a statement Friday.

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