When the Washington Aerospace Partnership, a local booster group, tried to woo Boeing recently with a full-page ad, it got widely mocked because the ad mistakenly featured a plane from the hated Airbus.
“The Future of Washington,” said the ad, jarringly superimposed over a photo of a European-made Airbus A319.
“A cringe-worthy error,” admitted a spokeswoman for the group.
But what if the error is actually a better strategy than the lovelorn approach we’re officially pursuing?
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My first reaction to our ad was: “That’s embarrassing.” But then I thought: “Seriously, why not? Why not woo Airbus?”
That’s Stan Sorscher talking. He’s one of the 13 members of the Washington Aerospace Partnership, and works for SPEEA, the union for Boeing’s engineers. He says the botched ad inadvertently got people talking about our lopsided, dysfunctional relationship: how Seattle is so much more loyal to Boeing than Boeing is to us.
“People still instinctively think of Boeing as our company,” Sorscher says. “But it isn’t anymore.”
I fall into this enabling trap. Boeing has always been “us’” and Airbus “them.” When I see a Boeing plane I still think to myself “there’s one of ours” (even though some three-fourths of each new plane is made outside the U.S.).
Boeing has no such gauzy feelings. When it was mulling putting a commercial jet-making plant elsewhere for the first time, into South Carolina, internal documents showed doing so would cost the company years in delays and billions in money. But — and this “but” apparently was priceless — leaving would give the company “leverage” over its Puget Sound workforce and political leadership.
Makes sense. So why don’t we do it back?
Our Legislature just passed the largest state corporate-tax break in U.S. history — $8.7 billion, ostensibly for Boeing if it builds its next plane, the 777x, here. But the legislation never names Boeing (singling out one company for favoritism would be unconstitutional.) It refers only generically to companies “engaged in the manufacturing of commercial airplanes or the fuselages or wings.”
So why not just as aggressively sell those same sweet tax breaks to another?
In the past, politicians and business leaders have been leery to do this. We were at war with Airbus. Being friendly with the Europeans was seen as “disloyalty,” or as something that could “get blowback from Boeing,” Sorscher says.
As one engineer with a Mukilteo company that sells airplane parts to both Boeing and Airbus told KPLU News: “I remember a time when business owners here viewed Boeing as the customer and everyone else as the enemy.”
Well, last year Puget Sound companies sold $200 million of parts to enemy No. 1, Airbus. So there is no foe any longer. No us or them.
There’s only leverage. And we don’t have much. Beyond our hundred years of making planes and supply of skilled workers, that is.
So why not pitch that just as strongly to Airbus? Or to the Chinese, who are trying to start an aerospace industry from scratch?
Other companies probably have the same labor union worries about Seattle that Boeing does. Airbus already sited one plant in the U.S., and it picked Alabama.
But we didn’t try for that one. For fear of hurting Boeing’s feelings, we didn’t make the hard sell. Such as: Wouldn’t it be a coup for Airbus to have a plant in the home state of the U.S. Senate’s budget chairwoman — and leading champion for all things Boeing — Patty Murray? As Airbus tries to get into U.S. markets, that would give them some political leverage of their own. Yes, leverage it could use against our old partner Boeing.
Unseemly? Hey, we didn’t start this leverage game. But in getting ready for a possible life after Boeing, we need to start playing it.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org