Trump talk rattles US aerospace industry

One of the mats made at the SmartCells factory in Chehalis, Washington, intended to reduce fatigue for Boeing workers on their feet while assembling jets. President Trump's talk of border tariffs and new trade deals has the US aerospace industry worr
One of the mats made at the SmartCells factory in Chehalis, Washington, intended to reduce fatigue for Boeing workers on their feet while assembling jets. President Trump's talk of border tariffs and new trade deals has the US aerospace industry worried that his policies could hurt competitiveness.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Companies fear border tariffs and new trade deals could raise cost, hurting supply chain

CHEHALIS (Washington) • At this small factory south of Seattle city in the US, employees make one of the most specialised products in the aerospace industry: the rubber mats that Boeing workers stand on while assembling jets.

As long as there are jets and Boeing, business would seem to be steady. But even here, workers are bracing for bumps and economic uncertainty over the gritty details of where aviation parts get made and who makes them.

President Donald Trump has talked about border tariffs and new trade deals that many people in the aerospace industry fear could raise the cost of US jets bought by foreign airlines or governments. And if Boeing's sales or profits suffer, its nerve-system supply chain - more than 13,000 companies across the US and more than 1.5 million jobs - would most likely feel the pain too.

At SmartCells, 50 full-time employees and a few dozen temporary workers stamp out cushion pads on heavy machines. Washington feels far away, but it is on just about everybody's radar.

"Let's hit it with a two-by-four and see how it reacts, then get a plan," said Mr Bob Bishop, the chief operations officer at SmartCells, describing Mr Trump's hard-charging style as being akin to hitting something with a plank of wood. "That doesn't always work."

The anxiety, said Mr Bishop, 46, who voted for Mr Trump, centres on economics, specifically the intense competition with French airplane maker Airbus, which competes with Boeing for jet orders in a delicate game of narrow cost differences and giant contracts.

Mr Trump has said he would seek a 45 per cent tariff on imports from China, for example, to protect US jobs, and a 20 per cent tariff on goods from Mexico. If business costs for Boeing go up as a result, the firm - the nation's largest exporter by dollar volume - probably would not be able to raise prices on its planes to make up the difference as it would lose customers to Airbus.

"It means they may cut jobs," said Mr Kevin Michaels, managing director at AeroDynamic Advisory, a specialised market analysis company in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Boeing's commercial airplane division last year cut 8 per cent of its US workforce, or more than 6,000 jobs. Some companies in the supply chain, partly because of cost-cutting pressure by Boeing, have shrunk or merged.

Since his election, Mr Trump has harshly criticised Boeing's high price tag for a new Air Force One presidential plane. Boeing, founded in Seattle in 1916, employs about 140,000 people in the US, about half of them in Washington state.

"We've got such a huge network here - anything that curtails exports hurts the entire supply chain," said Mr John Thornquist, director of the aerospace office at the Washington State Department of Commerce.

Firms that sell to Boeing, or sell to other companies that build Boeing components, said that even predicting a trade war was risky, with so many variables - politics, economics, multiple countries - all in play. A modern jetliner can have up to six million components that must be engineered and tested to safety standards, even before assembly starts.

"We're trying to do our best due diligence to put together an assessment, but at this time, the best we can do is just monitor day by day," said Mr Maurizio Miozza, vice- president for development and strategic planning at Umbra Cuscinetti, an Italian firm that makes precision parts for Boeing and has about 100 employees north of Seattle. But, he added, "the picture is not rosy".

Boeing declined an interview request but said in an e-mail statement: "The administration has made it clear that they are pro-economic growth, including in exports and manufacturing jobs. We are engaged with the administration in direct and productive discussion."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Trump talk rattles US aerospace industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe