Boeing Suspends KC-46, P-8 Aircraft Production Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

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A P-8A Poseidon Aircraft assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 4 makes a pass over Naval Air Station Sigonella.
A P-8A Poseidon Aircraft assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 4 makes a pass over Naval Air Station Sigonella following a flight in support of Dynamic Manta 2020. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Juan Sua)

Boeing Co. has suspended production of its KC-46 Pegasus tanker and P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft amid the coronavirus pandemic, the company announced Monday.

The aerospace company, which hosts part of its production in Washington state, has halted its commercial and military-derivative aircraft operations in the Puget Sound region, a company spokesman said in a statement. Both the P-8 and KC-46 are assembled in facilities in Renton and Everett; the intelligence gathering aircraft is a 737 commercial derivative, while the KC-46A is based on the 767 airliner.

"We're actively engaged with our defense customers to minimize any impacts on their missions," the spokesman said. Some work will continue to fix the tanker's remote vision system, or RVS, he added.

"Certain non-production work for all commercial derivative aircraft programs, including for the KC-46 remote vision system enhancements, will continue being done by employees working remotely," he said.

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The tanker requires a fix to its RVS, a critical capability that permits the in-flight operator to view the refueling system below the aircraft. The tanker's expected readiness has been pushed back at least to the 2023-2024 timeframe because of an RVS glitch, which doesn't allow an airman to look at a clear, aligned visual of the boom connecting to another aircraft.

Despite that issue, the Air Force accepted its 31st tanker earlier this month, around the same time the State Department approved the first KC-46 sale to Israel. That country would become the second foreign military customer of the tanker, behind Japan.

Meanwhile, Boeing expanded its P-8 reach by delivering the first submarine-hunting and anti-surface warfare aircraft to the United Kingdom last fall. The U.S. Navy and Australia already fly the long-range aircraft, and the Indian Navy flies the P-8I variant. Norway has also bought into the program.

Boeing said it will shut down its Puget Sound operations starting Wednesday, with the intention of keeping plants closed for at least 14 days.

"This necessary step protects our employees and the communities where they work and live," said Boeing President and CEO Dave Calhoun in a news release. "We continue to work closely with public health officials, and we're in contact with our customers, suppliers and other stakeholders who are affected by this temporary suspension. We regret the difficulty this will cause them, as well as our employees, but it's vital to maintain health and safety for all those who support our products and services, and to assist in the national effort to combat the spread of COVID-19."

The shutdown comes as the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers recently delivered a bleak message about the industry to Congress: Given the coronavirus' spread, more than 500,000 aerospace jobs are at risk, depending how long quarantine and stay-at-home mandates continue, it said.

In a March 23 letter sent to lawmakers, the trade union group, which advocates for aerospace and related jobs in both the U.S. and Canada, said industries have already begun notifying thousands of workers that, without additional financial support from the government, layoffs are on the horizon, according to Air Force Magazine.

"This strategic industry cannot be saved without first ensuring the economic security of the workers who make it thrive," said IAM International President Robert Martinez, as reported by the magazine.

That includes "all provisions in the applicable collective bargaining agreements," in addition to salaries, benefits and health insurance, he said.

"It is vitally important to our national security, our domestic supply chain, and our role in the global economy that this industry and the workers which are its backbone receive immediate financial support," Martinez added.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Read more: The Latest on the Military's COVID-19 Response

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