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Spirit AeroSystems CEO says $80 million from Defense Department will reduce layoffs

Wichita Eagle | Dion Lefler

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Spirit AeroSystems announced Thursday it’s getting $80 million from the Department of Defense, part of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money will allow Spirit to expand advanced tooling, composite manufacturing and metal fabrication to support defense projects.

The defense money is a glimmer of good news at Spirit, battered by thousands of layoffs and furloughs related to the ongoing grounding of the Boeing 737 Max airliner and the international downturn in air travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our growing work on defense programs has provided a measure of stability for the company,” said a statement by Duane Hopkins, president of Spirit’s Defense Fabrication Department.

Hopkins said the additional defense funding will “help retain employees with critical skills.”

The announcement of new money came on a day when the plant hosted some high-level visitors, including Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Ron Estes, who are pushing to bring more defense work to Wichita to mitigate the downturn in civilian aviation.

“It’s a goal of ours at Spirit and elsewhere in Wichita — Textron and others — that defense increases its volume and is a larger percentage of their work,” Moran said. “So that even when COVID is behind us . . . it would provide a greater level of stability for people who work in aerospace and aviation.”

Spirit CEO Tom Gentile said he was thankful for the effort to bring more defense work to Wichita.

It’s been a rough couple of years for Spirit, which once had 15,000 employees in Wichita.

That’s now just under 10,000, Gentile said.

“We’ve already shifted 430 people from our commercial work, which is obviously going to be less in the near future, to defense,” Gentile said. “With this additional (Department of Defense) money, we expect our work statement will grow and that will be able to lead us to transfer additional jobs . . . over to our defense work. And that will reduce the number of people who are laid off at Spirit.

As the country struggled under quarantine, stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions, air travel was down as much as 96 percent, Gentile said. That meant the airlines had far less money and no need for new planes.

“Out of the 26,000 aircraft that were in the commercial fleet, as many as 19,000 at any time were grounded,” Gentile said.

Moran and Estes led Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett on a tour showing off Wichita’s aerospace manufacturing, research and operational capabilities with stops at Spirit, McConnell Air Force Base and the Wichita State University National Institute for Aviation Research.

They also took a nighttime ride on an Air Force K-46 tanker as it transferred fuel from plane to plane.

Gentile praised Moran and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia for a bill to give more targeted relief to the aircraft industry through a job-sharing arrangement in which employees would stay on the assembly line with government back-filling a portion of their salaries.

Moran said although the jobs will be in Wichita, the effect will be felt much farther.

“Our country has a great level of interest in maintaining the manufacturing workforce,” he said. “We can’t afford to let the downs in the commercial sector . . . continue to have people — who are highly trained, who have experience — to be unemployed and move on to other careers, move out of aviation and aerospace.”