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Boeing Workers Welcome Tanker Delay

Decision to delay the disputed competition on the tanker contract until the next administration was welcomed by striking Boeing machinists in Wichita.

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Striking Boeing Co. machinists here were heartened as word spread Wednesday of the decision to delay the disputed competition on the military tanker contract until the next administration.

But some Boeing workers were still angry with Republican presidential candidate John McCain's role on the tanker competition and said they fear what his election may mean to American aircraft manufacturing jobs. McCain played a key role in blocking an earlier version of the tanker deal that awarded the contract to Boeing.

"There is no way in hell I would vote for John McCain. ... Some people take things very personally," said Bob Feldt, a modification mechanic who has worked at Boeing for 22 years. "I would not be surprised if it cost him votes. It certainly cost him my vote."

McCain has promoted his role in fighting "pork," such as the tanker project, which has been on hold since Boeing lost the deal in late 2004 amid an ethics scandal.

Earlier this year, the contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp., which has partnered with Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. Boeing protested, and the Pentagon reopened the bidding in August, after a Government Accountability Office review found major flaws with how the contract was awarded.

Had Boeing won the contract, the finishing militarization of the tanker would have been done at Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems plant in Wichita.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was not concerned about Boeing's prospects if McCain is elected president.

"When he's president, he's got to judge whether or not our primary contractor for the tanker airplane is domestic or foreign and whether or not the EADS folks can do this in a way that serves our national interest," Roberts said.

The contract was expected to bring between 300 and 500 direct Boeing jobs, but its impact in Kansas could have been as high as 3,800 jobs when suppliers such as Spirit Aerosystems and others were considered. The economic impact for Wichita had been estimated at $145 million.

Craig Schiefelbein, a striking Boeing mechanic who works on the refueling tankers the company is building for Italy and Japan, said he feared for his Wichita job if Boeing loses the U.S. Air Force contract.

"I don't feel it is right a foreign company should be able to bid," Schiefelbein said, adding he did not believe it was a good idea for another country to produce U.S. military products.

But Schiefelbein had not yet decided whether McCain's role in the disputed tanker deal would be a deciding factor on how he will vote on president.

"It certainly made all of us look differently at (McCain). We don't look at him as a friend for workers -- especially Boeing workers," Schiefelbein said.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she was pleased with the Defense Department's decision.

"Supplying the best military equipment to our troops is a top priority. and we believe this delay will ensure the tanker replacement is the highest quality, and our workers will have an opportunity to compete fairly for the project," Sebelius said in a written statement.

Kansas lawmakers also hailed the decision.

"I couldn't be happier that this biased competition has been canceled," Roberts said. "It's certainly a win for the Boeing worker that's for sure."

Roberts said he and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., warned Pentagon officials last month that there would be no support in Congress for funding the tankers if the contract went to EADS.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., also applauded the decision, saying that by restarting the competition next year the Department of Defense can restore confidence that the ultimate winner will provide the best plane and best value for taxpayers.

But Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., expressed concern about the delay.

"For the safety and security of our military men and women, for a long time we have needed to replace our aging tanker fleet," Moran said in a written statement. "I am disappointed that the Air Force just cannot seem to get it right. All that is required is a fair and timely process with level competition."

The current Air Force tankers, which carry fuel that allow military planes to refuel without landing, are Boeing planes.

Some workers at Boeing's Wichita plant said Kansas lawmakers had not done enough to protect American jobs.

"They should never have allowed foreign bidders to bid it," said Mario Cervantes, a toolmaker for Boeing for 30 years.

Associated Press Writers Sam Hananel, Stephen Manning and Donna Borak in Washington, D.C., and John Milburn in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.

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