Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, speaking today before a rally with more than 2,000 general aviation workers in Wichita, vowed to “do everything I can” to persuade President Obama to visit the city to show his support for the industry and its contributions to the economy. LaHood’s remarks came after Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer renewed his invitation for the president to visit the self-proclaimed “Air Capital of the World.” Brewer first issued the invitation in 2009 as the general aviation market began to unravel and manufacturers in Wichita were laying off thousands of employees and moving facilities to Mexico as leaders in Washington were criticizing the use of corporate aircraft.
But the tone of today’s rally was one of an industry climbing out of its economic malaise. “This industry is coming back,” says General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) President and CEO Pete Bunce. “The world is waking up to the utility of these aircraft.”
GAMA organized the rally in partnership with Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Bombardier Learjet. The rally was held at Cessna’s facilities but attended by workers throughout the Wichita general aviation community. David Coleal, VP and general manager of Bombardier Learjet, joked that this was one of the first times Bombardier has had the opportunity to park its aircraft at a Cessna facility.
Also attending the rally were Cessna Chairman Jack Pelton; Bill Brown, executive VP of global operations for Hawker Beechcraft; Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R); Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and freshman Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.).
But LaHood’s presence in Wichita was symbolic for the city, which has long asked for the administration’s support of Wichita and the general aviation industry at large. LaHood told the crowd that in his travels over the past couple of years as secretary, this was the warmest reception he had received.
“We get it,” he told the workers. “The general aviation industry supports 1.2 million jobs across America ... I believe the industry’s efforts are crucial to President Obama’s goal of doubling exports within five years – just as they’re essential to keeping America on trajectory toward economic recovery.”
He acknowledged the challenges brought by the economic crisis, but said, “You out-innovation, you out-build, you keep our economy in constant motion. You are the epicenter for general aviation.” LaHood vowed that he would “stand with you, work with you and fight with you.”
Pelton added that “This visit and this rally means a great deal to this community.” He stressed the importance of collaboration, and said, “If the government gets out of our way and supports us, there’s no telling how big we can get.”
Coleal cited a Brookings Institute study that found Wichita to be a leading city for exports. “Even during a severe economic downturn, the GA industry remains one of the only sectors in U.S. manufacturing that still contributes positively to the balance of trade,” he says. “This underscores the critical role that general aviation can play in growing U.S. exports.” Brown, meanwhile, stressed the advances in training and the highly skilled workforce.