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Terrorism Takes a Toll in Wichita

Economy: As air travel fell off, airline industry- dependent Kansas town saw work force shrivel.


WICHITA, Kan. — It's not often that a civic leader has to urge his constituents to be more selfish.

But that's the position Wichita Mayor Bob Knight found himself in a few weeks back. Residents of this graceful city, like Americans everywhere, had been donating as much money as they could spare to victims of the September terrorist strikes. Knight hated to dampen the altruistic spirit. But he felt compelled to redirect it.

"Maybe the best thing we could do," he told citizens, "is to take care of our own."

For Knight knew that local need was great--and growing fast.

Wichita, which touts itself as "the air capital of the world," depends more than most U.S. cities on air travel. About 20% of all jobs here are tied to the aircraft industry. Four of the five biggest employers build planes. And the jobs at Boeing Co., Raytheon Co., Cessna Aircraft Co. and Bombardier Aerospace are among the best-paid hourly work in Kansas: Union members with a decade of experience can earn upward of $25 an hour, even for low-tech work like shuttling parts to the assembly line.

So the aftershocks of Sept. 11 hit Wichita hard. The swift, steep slide in air travel forced every plane manufacturer to recalculate sales projections. The new numbers were invariably grim. The first pink slips--at Raytheon--went out Oct. 1. In late October, 1,645 Boeing employees got the word. More will be laid off later this month.

7,000 Jobs May Be Lost

All told, economists expect more than 7,000 of the city's 43,500 aircraft workers to lose their jobs over the next year.

Employees fume that such deep cuts cannot be justified; they grumble that their bosses have seized terrorism as an excuse to slash payrolls. "They're using Sept. 11 as a crutch," said one Boeing veteran, a materials processor. He has spent 22 years at Boeing but still fears for his job--his pay, he said, already has been cut by $1.50 an hour. "The way they're treating people is unreal," he said, growling over a Budweiser after work.

Boeing officials insist the job cuts are a direct result of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the third quarter of this year alone, they point out, the company held back 19 planes it had expected to deliver to various airlines. Until customers are ready to accept them, Boeing will not get paid.

The result: A city that for years has enjoyed close to full employment--that had expected to create 10,000 jobs next year--soon will find itself with thousands of out-of-work laborers desperate for income to cover the mortgages and car payments they took on when times were good.

"We've had such low unemployment that we were being deluged with companies asking us to find them people [to hire]. That was our goal prior to Sept. 11," said David Norris, director of the Workforce Alliance, a business coalition. "It's a whole new ballgame now."

Thus, Knight's suggestion that charity begin at home. "Every heart in Wichita goes out to the victims in New York and Washington," he explained in a recent interview. "But we're at a point now where we have to direct our attention to our own. . . . This city is absorbing some real challenges."

Residents responded, with zeal, to the mayor's plea. The number of workers diverting part of each paycheck to the local chapter of the United Way has jumped at least 10% this year, thanks to a surge of recent giving for local needs, according to Patrick J. Hanrahan, president of the group's Wichita chapter.

"For a while, everyone was focused on giving to the East Coast relief effort, which was as it should be," he said. "No one had yet realized the extent of Wichita's problems." Thanks to Knight and other officials raising the alarm, Hanrahan added, "we finally got the message out that Wichitans are in trouble."

The city, the largest in Kansas, with a population of 340,000, has been through tough times before. There were wrenching layoffs two decades ago, when single-engine aircraft were phased out and up to 15,000 jobs vanished for good. Another crunch hit during the national recession of the early 1990s.

This plunge is different because it's been so sudden. Still, "we expect the jobs will come back," said Janet Harrah, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University. "I don't think anyone expects these to be permanent job losses."

While they wait for the industry to rebound, civic leaders hope to train out-of-work aircraft workers for some of the jobs that are open in the region--in fields such as nursing, teaching and law enforcement. They are hoping as well to create construction jobs by speeding up long-planned public works projects: from air-conditioning schools to repairing bridges. Unlike many cities, Wichita has a budget surplus, about $18 million, so there is money for public spending.

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