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Boeing launches PR campaign to save C-17 cargo

The company runs newspaper ads urging Congress to provide funding to build more of the military aircraft at a factory in Long Beach. Union members rally in support.

August 21, 2009|W.J. Hennigan

Boeing Co. and supporters of the C-17 cargo plane launched a multi-front public relations offensive Thursday, hoping to extend the life of one of Southern California's last major military aircraft factories.

The company ran full-page advertisements in local newspapers, including The Times, and about 450 union members staged a rally near the plane's assembly line in Long Beach urging Congress to buy more of the aircraft. In Washington, 18 U.S. senators also wrote a letter seeking support to keep the aircraft production moving.

The campaign was aimed at pushing Congress to provide funding for 12 new C-17s in the fiscal 2010 defense appropriations bill. Without the funding, the production line is slated to stop in July 2011. The first workforce cutbacks could begin later this year, a Boeing spokesman said.

If their efforts fall short, it could mean the end of the plant, said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst with the Lexington Institute.

"This is the end of the road for the C-17 factory, unless Congress can get the new planes into the bill," Thompson said. "If the production lines stop moving, they won't start again. You can't mothball the ability to build an aircraft."

Boeing estimates that about 14,000 jobs will be lost in California if the C-17 program is canceled. The potential job loss was highlighted in the newspaper ad that ran Thursday.

Those jobs are not likely to come back if the plant goes dark, said Tommy Dunehew, Boeing's vice president for business development. A Government Accountability Office study last year said restarting the production line could cost as much as $1 billion.

Boeing won't be able to shoulder the cost, he said.

"This is a very serious situation," Dunehew said. "We're doing all we can to preserve our workforce and keep the program running."

The plane is an important part of Boeing's business, generating $8 billion a year in revenue. The Chicago company not only makes the C-17, it also upgrades and maintains it.

The plane has been in production since the early 1990s but has relied on congressional funding since 2006. It's been able to garner widespread congressional support because the parts come from more than 650 suppliers in 43 states.

Congress in June earmarked funding for eight additional C-17s in a supplemental bill, which funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The C-17 is a classic congressional welfare case," said Laura Peterson, national security analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group.

Peterson added that the Air Force and the Pentagon had both said more C-17s weren't needed. "The military hasn't changed its mind. This program shouldn't be perpetuated at the expense of taxpayers," she said.

Maybe the planes aren't needed now, but they will be down the road, said George Burden, political director of the United Auto Workers Local 148, which represents C-17 workers.

Burden said the plane provided more than 5,000 jobs in Long Beach and thousands more elsewhere in the state. He helped organize UAW workers for a rally at the Boeing Fitness Center in Long Beach.

The event took place during an afternoon shift change Thursday and brought in about 450 people, Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said.

"It took a long time to develop a plant like this," Burden said. "If the funding doesn't come through, we might lose it in a matter of months."

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william.hennigan@latimes.com

twitter.com/wjhenn

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