Editorial notebook: Another view of tanker deal — How many 'Frenchmen' does it take to build a plane?
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Sep 28, 2009 | 1684 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An airplane wing under construction at the Airbus facility in Hamburg, Germany, along the Elbe River. Photo: Bob Davis/The Anniston Star
An airplane wing under construction at the Airbus facility in Hamburg, Germany, along the Elbe River. Photo: Bob Davis/The Anniston Star
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Photo: Bob Davis/The Anniston Star
Photo: Bob Davis/The Anniston Star
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Photo: Bob Davis/The Anniston Star
Photo: Bob Davis/The Anniston Star
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HAMBURG, Germany — When the Pentagon awarded a large defense contract last year to a team of aircraft makers that included a European partner, the outrage among U.S. congressmen whose districts stood to benefit from the deal going to rival bidder Boeing was unmistakable.

Todd Tiahrt, a conservative Republican U.S. representative from Kansas, said at the time, "I cannot believe that we would create French jobs in place of Kansas jobs."

Not a beret or baguette was visible last week when a group of U.S. journalists toured an enormous Airbus facility here. The workers constructing various passenger aircraft appeared as solidly German as one might expect to discover along the assembly line located along the Elbe River in this northern Germany port city.

And the "French" jobs that set off the congressman? As many as 2,500 would have been in Mobile, where European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS), the parent company of Airbus, proposed to construct Air Force refueling tankers along with its partner Northrop-Grumman.

Because of the backlash from Tiahrt and his cohorts, the much-discussed jobs don't yet exist in France, Mobile, Seattle, Wichita or anywhere else. A complaint by EADS rival Boeing, a U.S.-based aircraft manufacturer, and its allies in Congress forced the military to do it all over again. The official complaint was that the bidding lacked transparency. The more realistic version showed the limits of free trade when politics, employment and national defense collide.

In the meantime, the Pentagon waits to replace its refueling tankers, some of which are in their fifth decade of service. The Air Force began requesting bids last Friday on the contract worth $35 billion in the short term and as much as $100 billion in later years.

The winning bid will be announced next summer.

During last week's tour, Airbus workers could be seen doing the various tasks required for constructing aircraft, including wiring, attaching wings and installing insulation for planes bound for customers around the world.

EADS has facilities across Europe, including Germany, France and the Netherlands. Should EADS/Northrop win the tanker contract, south Alabama would be one more facility among many.

Rainer Ohler, a spokesman for Airbus, said how this contract process goes this time will set the standard for global defense trade for the next quarter-century. If the process looks unfair, it will be a "huge setback" for free trade, Ohler said.

For now, Airbus is preparing to put its best bid forward in order to win the contract. Again.

— Bob Davis
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