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Boeing's Decision To Halt Production Of 737 Max Will Hit Wichita Hard

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Boeing ousted its CEO yesterday. And today, its suppliers are closely watching problems with the suspended 737 Max program. Nowhere is that more evident than at Boeing's largest supplier, Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kan. From member station KMUW in Wichita, Nadya Faulx reports.

NADYA FAULX, BYLINE: Wichita calls itself the air capital of the world. It's the birthplace of Beechcraft, Cessna and Learjet. Manufacturing as a whole makes up almost 20% of the area's workforce, and more than half of that is in aviation. Wichita State University economist Jeremy Hill says it's a big concentration.

JEREMY HILL: We have a lot more eggs in one sector of the economy.

FAULX: Of all the aviation companies in Wichita, Spirit is by far the largest. It makes about 70% of the 737, from the body of the plane to its engine casing and parts of the wing.

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FAULX: Driving through Spirit Aerosystems' sprawling campus in south Wichita, you can catch glimpses of the long, narrow fuselages wrapped in protective bright orange tarps. They've been stacking up here for months, ever since the FAA ordered airlines not to fly the 737 Max following two fatal crashes. Now with Boeing's order to halt production, these parts have nowhere to go.

Hill says Boeing's shutdown will have ripple effects across the aviation industry, from Spirit down to smaller suppliers.

HILL: For Spirit, they're bigger, and they can handle some of this loss. Boeing can obviously handle it. It just gets down to the smaller suppliers, where, if they don't do layoffs and they just try to handle it, there could be some risk and vulnerability in that supply chain.

FAULX: Spirit is already anticipating the shutdown's impact on its business and finances but hasn't yet said what it will mean for its workforce. The company employs more than 13,000 people, making it Wichita's largest private employer. Spirit isn't talking layoffs yet, but in a message to employees, it says it's working on multiple scenarios for how to manage the production hold.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly has committed state assistance to Spirit workers if the shutdown drags on. That could include a program where employees would get partial pay from Spirit and state unemployment. The city of Wichita says it's also in contact with Spirit and ready to help minimize any disruption.

Keith Lawing is with the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas. He says local suppliers are already having informal discussions about how to ride out the shutdown.

KEITH LAWING: We're beginning to think about the options and what do we need to be doing here into 2020? A lot of it's really just going to depend on the time frame of the FAA and when the 737 Max gets certified again.

FAULX: Last week, United Airlines said it won't fly its 737 Maxes again until at least next summer. The FAA says it has no time frame for when the plane might be recertified. Lawing says that's a concern going forward.

LAWING: If it goes much longer than the first quarter, then I think we're going to have some very serious conversations about the impact this could have on Wichita and South Central Kansas.

FAULX: These unknowns are creating uncertainty as Spirit workers take their annual two-week holiday. At Barron's Bar and Grill just up the road from Spirit, Ed Colwell (ph) says he's worked there for 34 years, including on the 737 program.

ED COLWELL: It's probably anxiety and frustration for a lot of people that haven't been there very long. So they're probably looking at layoffs, furloughs or three-day workweeks, depending on what comes around.

FAULX: He and other workers here will be back at Spirit after the 1st of the year. They're just not sure what they'll be working on, and for how long.

For NPR News, I'm Nadya Faulx in Wichita.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.