It’s a question that comes around about every 10 years — usually coinciding with a downturn in the nation’s economy: Is Wichita, the air capital of the U.S., destined to become the next Detroit?
Absolutely not, say the top executives at the airplane manufacturers based in the city.
One reason is because the Big Three automakers never thought their competitors were a threat, said David Coleal, vice president and general manager of Bombardier’s Learjet product line, who at one time worked in the auto industry.
“In aviation, we’re very aware of our competitors, both locally and internationally,” he said during the Wichita Aero Club’s first online summit earlier this week. “We’re very focused on our customers and on product development. It is not a similar situation to Detroit.”
Another big difference is the “resilient” workforce in Wichita, said Jack Pelton, chairman, president and CEO of Cessna. “These employees care about the company and their co-workers,” he said. “We saw the people in Detroit sitting around and getting paid even though they weren’t working and they didn’t care if GM went bankrupt. You won’t see that at Cessna.”
What you also won’t see at Cessna — or any of the other Wichita aviation firms — is a hand out to Washington.
“We haven’t asked for anything — just get out of our way. We need less regulation, not more,” said Bill Boisture, chairman and president of Hawker Beechcraft Aircraft, who noted no one in Wichita is even thinking about asking for a bailout, perhaps because aviation attracts “bold people who have forward vision.”
That said, aviation does need something from Washington, D.C.: “We need to make sure the FAA is funded so it can keep the infrastructure healthy,” he said. “One of the real barriers to our growth overseas is there are no airports. We are blessed in this country to have a network of airports, but they need to be re-invested in.
“We don’t want financial help, we want people with vision who can make the right decisions on the infrastructure side,” he continued.