When the aircraft industry slowed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, mechanic Robert Burgar lost his job at Apex Engineering, an aircraft parts manufacturer. For a time, the local food bank kept Burgar and his family fed. Multiply Burgar by 14,000, and it becomes clearer what is going on in this Midwestern city that calls itself the "Air Capital of the World." In Wichita, aircraft construction is king, and the king is ailing.
Wichita has four major airplane manufacturing plants -- owned by Boeing Co., Cessna Aircraft, Raytheon Aircraft and Bombardier Aerospace -- and more than 60 aviation subcontractors. Boeing's biggest competitor, Airbus of France, has a wing design facility here.
In the past 18 months, about 14,200 aircraft workers in Wichita have been laid off. An additional 1,500 job cuts are expected at Cessna this year.
"We are ground zero for economic devastation here," said Carolyn Bunch, executive director for Kansel, a nonprofit agency that provides education and job training programs for the unemployed. The Wichita metropolitan area has an estimated population of 544,000 people, according to 1998 statistics.
Burgar is better off than many of Wichita's unemployed. After seven months of looking, he landed a job in June as a city maintenance worker, making $4 an hour less than his previous job paid.
The aviation industry has been devastated by the fallout from the terrorist attacks and the sluggish economy. The airlines that buy Boeing's jets canceled orders or put off purchases, forcing the manufacturer to reschedule deliveries of more than 500 jets and cut production rates in half.
At the same time, producers of business jets and private aircraft in Wichita also lost customers as corporations responded to the slowing economy with cutbacks.
Last week, Cessna Aircraft reduced to 220 the number of its signature Citation business jets expected to be delivered this year, compared with the 307 Cessna built in 2002. The company is also using an auto industry sales tactic; it is offering zero percent financing on its turbo-prop Caravans purchased for delivery in the first half of 2003.
Raytheon Aircraft recently announced that 600 additional layoffs will take place in Kansas this year, and also lowered its forecast of plane deliveries in 2003 to 321, down from 356 a year earlier.
The aviation industry's problems have spread to the rest of the city's economy. Retail sales are sluggish. Construction activity has slowed. Home sales, buoyed by low mortgage rates, were up 2 percent last year but have since stalled, and local economists say home sales won't provide a stimulus for the economy in 2003.
The Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University has forecast that local employment will be stagnant this year.
Manufacturing accounts for 24 percent of all jobs in the Wichita area, statistics show. And the aviation industry makes up 69 percent of the manufacturing sector's payroll. These are well-paying jobs, averaging $52,603 annually, according to government statistics.
"All of a sudden the gravy train stops -- and it is harder for someone making $60,000 a year to go on unemployment than someone making $20,000," said Frank Chapell, director of the Kansas Aviation Museum. "It is the difference between making payments on a $350-a-month mortgage versus a $1,250-a-month mortgage. That is what makes it tough."
Laid-off aircraft workers are asking for help from the same charities they once supported.
Half of the money raised by the United Way's fundraising campaign in Wichita traditionally comes from the four aircraft manufacturers and their employees. Last month, the United Way cut funding to most of its 34 agencies by $1.19 million.
"It is tough, very tough," said Patrick J. Hanrahan, president of United Way of the Plains.
Meanwhile, charities are swamped. Calls to the United Way's information line from people looking for help with rent, mortgage payments and utility bills are up 40 percent from a year ago, Hanrahan said. Demand at the Kansas Food Bank Warehouse is up 30 percent this year from last.
Chapell remembers how hard it was after World War II, when thousands lost their jobs after wartime aircraft production ended. He recalls the brutal 1970s, when the joke was a billboard asking the last worker leaving town to turn off the lights. He predicts the industry will come back even stronger this time as well.
"This is not good, and it is not good because everybody is so used to riding this big burp of aircraft manufacturing," Chapell said. "Is it a death blow? Not by a long run."
Chapell said sales will be helped by growth in fractional ownership of business jets, a concept similar to real estate time shares. And the airlines eventually will have to replace aging aircraft.
"There is not an airplane made in the United States, or maybe even the free world, that does not have at least one part manufactured in Wichita," he said.