Wichita Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told general aviation workers in Kansas on Monday that he's ready to fight to boost the prospects of their business, soothing resentment that's simmered since some in Washington made private airplanes a symbol of corporate greed during the depths of the Great Recession.
More than 2,000 workers from several aviation companies turned out for a rally at an aircraft hangar to mark LaHood's visit to the city, cheering wildly when the former Republican congressman from Illinois said he would persuade President Barack Obama to come to Wichita to thank them.
The city is home to several private aircraft makers, including Cessna Aircraft, Hawker Beechcraft, Bombardier, as well as dozens of suppliers.
"We get it," LaHood said. "Your industry supports 1.2 million jobs across America. It contributes more than $150 billion to the nation's economy."
Cessna Aircraft CEO Jack Pelton said after the event that LaHood privately told industry executives earlier in the day that he would go back to Washington as their advocate. "You couldn't ask for a better outcome," Pelton said.
LaHood, the nation's top federal transportation official, heads back to Washington with a wish list of requests from Pelton and the other executives. They include boosting the FAA's support of the industry in certification of new aircraft and streamlining the regulations that govern the export of private aircraft.
Pelton said the general aviation industry has suffered in the two years since auto executives "got bashed in Congress" for flying private jets from Detroit to Washington, where they pleaded for billions in taxpayer-funded bailouts. In January 2010, Obama also chastised Citigroup Inc. for buying a corporate jet when it was getting bailout money, prompting the New York-based bank to cancel the purchase of the French-built jet it had ordered before the economic crisis unfolded.
Thousands of Wichita aircraft workers have lost their jobs in the past few years as companies canceled aircraft orders amid uncertainty in the economy. But LaHood told the Wichita workers their efforts are essential to meeting Obama's goal of doubling exports from the U.S. during the next five years.
"I am proud to stand with you, to work with you and to fight with you to make sure that general aviation ... continues to flourish as the economy picks up," he said. "You will be one of the leaders in helping the global economy pick up."
More than 40 percent of the world's general aviation aircraft are assembled in Wichita, said Bill Brown, executive vice president for global operations for Hawker Beechcraft.
David Coleal, the general manager of Bombardier's Learjet product line in Wichita, told the workers that "no other industry, city or group of individuals is more prepared to accept this challenge."
The general aviation accounts for more than $7 billion of the state's annual economic output and roughly 58 percent of Wichita's manufacturing industry. "Success of general aviation is success for all of Kansas," U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran told workers.