WASHINGTON - The nation's aerospace industry is facing an economic and employment "crisis" that threatens to topple the United States from its position as the world leader in air transportation, space exploration and technology, according to a study released yesterday.
A consolidated industry, aging work force and government apathy have combined to weaken the nation's industrial base and could threaten national security if allowed to continue, says a report from the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. The industry has lost more than 600,000 technical and scientific jobs in the past 13 years, and the average age of remaining workers is over 50, the report says.
A reversal is unlikely unless the federal government adopts a new aerospace policy and begins financing more research, airport improvements and technological advancements, the report says.
The commission, appointed by the president and Congress to assess the aerospace industry, released its final report yesterday and plans to present it to Vice President Dick Cheney today.
"There have been systematic failures over the years, and our nation and the aerospace industry face a significant challenge because of those failures," said Robert S. Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman who chaired the commission.
"This crisis we now face is real," said Walker, who is chairman of Wexler & Walker, the Washington lobbying firm. "Americans have taken aerospace leadership for granted, and we can no longer do that. If we allow our aerospace industry to falter, our nation's defense hangs in the balance."
The commission said the United States' air-traffic control network is obsolete and will contribute to crippling delays at the nation's airports if not upgraded over the next 10 years.
The report also called for trade-policy changes that would give American aircraft and equipment manufacturers easier access to foreign markets and business alliances.
The commission called for an increased level of overall support and attention by Congress and the White House. The panel said the industry needs more money; it did not specify where or how much.
That and other conclusions seemed to please aerospace industry officials.
Representatives of Boeing Co., for instance, stood outside the commission's meeting yesterday handing out a statement from Chief Executive Officer Philip M. Condit, supporting the group's "bold action."
While not among the handful of aerospace states, Maryland has more than 37,000 workers in the industry, with an annual payroll of $2.1 billion, the panel found. The average salary among those workers in Maryland, according to the commission, is $55,242 - fourth-highest in the country.
The decline in numbers and experience among the work force was one of the commission's top concerns, leading to a call for better training and education and more government research and exploration programs to make the industry more exciting and attractive.
Commission member Tillie K. Fowler said the price of not doing so could be "intellectual and industrial disarmament," as workers shun an industry that is largely responsible for the nation's technological military dominance.
She and other members said they plan to take the report to Capitol Hill when the next Congress convenes.
The 12-member commission was formed two years ago and includes industry executives, a Wall Street analyst, former politicians and retired military officers. Lockheed Martin Corp. Chief Operating Officer Robert J. Stevens and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin are among the members.