Saturday, April 4, 2009

Week in review (3/29 to 4/4)

During this past week, the Joint Strike Fighter Training Center, the aerial refueling tanker and the Constellation Program all managed making headlines. All three issues are of critical importance to the Gulf Coast region.

In Northwest Florida, Valparaiso city leaders opted to make good on a vow to file suit in federal court seeking to block the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Training Center from coming to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.. It wants the wheels to immediately stop turning. The city believes the Air Force failed to considering other locations on Eglin that would have less noise impact on Valparaiso.

But those who are afraid Valparaiso is jeopardizing an economic development boon are lining up against the city. A lawyer filed suit in state court claiming Valparaiso violated state sunshine laws. And the Okaloosa County Commission voted to initiate the dispute resolution process, the first step for one government agency to sue another in Florida.

While all this was going on, the Bay County commission sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley offering Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Fla., as a good location for the training center if problems continue at Eglin. That base is losing two F-15s squadrons by the end of 2010.

Keep your eye out this week for more details on the $534 billion defense budget. Over the past few weeks defense contractors have converged on Capitol Hill to put in their pitch for projects. The defense budget will have a significant impact on the Gulf Coast, home to numerous military bases and defense contractor operations.

One of those projects that will be high on the list of interest for the Gulf Coast is the Air Force’s attempt to replace its aging fleet of KC-135 tankers. Twice in the past attempts to award contracts were scuttled.

And because it’s become so political – and it’s likely the company that loses the next competition will protest – the movement to split the contract between Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team is gaining steam.

Rep. John Murtha, chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week in an effort to secure Pentagon backing for dividing the $35 billion contract. EADS North America plans to assemble the tankers in Mobile, Ala., if it wins the contract.

Some analysts are saying EADS would benefit more than Boeing from a split contract. If it built the factory in Mobile, it would also make up to 40 commercial freighter planes there each year, letting it compete more fiercely with Boeing in the United States.

That, of course, is something Boeing wouldn’t want to see.

Meanwhile, EADS North America launched an advertising campaign to underscore the company’s role in America’s economy. The campaign highlights the $11 billion spent in the U.S. by EADS and its business units in 2008, supporting more than 200,000 American jobs. The initial ad features members of the Mississippi-based American Eurocopter team that produces UH-72A Lakotas. EADS, which hopes to increase its presence on the Gulf Coast, already has an Airbus Engineering Center and an EADS CASA maintenance center in Mobile.

There was a story in the Orlando Sentinel during the week that said the cost of the Constellation Program has gone up, and is likely to continue rising. The story says that may force some rethinking on America's lunar ambitions. Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi are both involved in the Constellation program.

Airports/air bases
Louisiana leaders will decide this month whether to continue efforts to build a $4.4 billion airport near Donaldsonville, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along Interstate 10. Critics claim the state has spent too much and has failed to attract private investors. Backers envision an airport with links to water, rail and highways built on a 25,000-acre site.

- In New Orleans, the aviation board has recruited Dulles Airport Taxi of Virginia to overhaul the taxicab system at Louis Armstrong International Airport, although no contract had been signed by the end of the week.

- Delta Air Lines will add two more flights to Mobile Regional Airport in Mobile, Ala., beginning June 5, bringing its total to nine on weekdays and returning mainline jet service to Mobile for the first time since November. Delta will substitute 50-seat regional jets for some of the 70-seat regional jets it is flying.

- The air show at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., was expected to attract as many as 70,000 spectators for the first air show at Keesler since Hurricane Katrina. Thunder on the Bay includes a show by the Air Force Thunderbirds precision demonstration team.

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