Wichita — The arrival of Boeing Co.'s first 767 airplane to be modified as a refueling tanker for the Italian Air Force was ceremoniously marked Monday as the start of a new production line that could be important to the city's economic future.
Boeing officials said the new line could employ as many as 3,000 workers in Wichita -- if the U.S. Air Force, as expected, follows suit with its own tanker leasing deal.
The plane that was the center of attention Monday is one of four that will be delivered to the Italian Air Force, Boeing's first customer for the tankers. Japan also has ordered four.
Col. Roberto Poni of the Italian Air Force said he was concerned because his country was the first to order Boeing's 767 tankers. But he said his country badly needed them.
"We had to go for something. The decision to take the risk with Boeing was better than taking the risk with someone else," Poni said.
He said he hoped the United States soon would decide to order its own plane.
"That will confirm our decision was a correct one," he said.
Boeing is expected to deliver 100 refueling tankers to the U.S. Air Force in a leasing deal worth $16 billion. The deal, which still requires congressional approval, was announced in May.
Dana Cox, of ITOCHU Aviation in Japan, also told Boeing workers he hoped their 767 production would soon grow by one other country and 100 planes -- a reference to the pending deal in Congress.
"I want to thank the Italian government and the Japanese government for leading the way," said Howard Chambers, vice president in charge of the tanker program at Boeing.
U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt told Boeing workers Monday he anticipated receiving approval for the U.S. project by Oct. 1 from the last of the four congressional committees.
The fuselages of the 767 tankers are being built in Boeing's widebody plant in Everett, Wash., and will be flown to Wichita to be reconfigured.
Boeing already has between 600 and 700 workers involved in the 767 project in its Wichita modification plant, Chambers said. That number will grow by another 100 to 200 workers in the next couple of years with the start of the Italian and Japanese production, he said.
If the U.S. tanker deal is approved, as many as 2,000 to 3,000 jobs in Wichita could be directly tied to the 767 modification work by the time 767 tanker production peaks, Chambers said.
Company projections call for four 767 tankers to be built in 2003 and 16 in 2007. For 2008 through 2011, the company expects to be building 20 tanker planes a year, said Boeing spokesman Paul Guse.
Boeing says the potential market to replace aging refueling tankers includes about 500 tankers now in use in the United States and another 500 tankers worldwide.