Despite criticism and threats from President-elect Donald Trump that the F-35 jet fighter program is “out of control,” Lockheed Martin will shift the majority of its assembly line workers to a new work schedule as it prepares to ramp up toward full production of the stealth fighter.
The majority of the nearly 2,600 machinists who now work eight hours Monday through Friday will transition to a work schedule Jan. 2 where they get every other Friday off, said Ken Ross, a spokesman for Lockheed.
Under such a schedule, called a 9/80, employees work nine days and earn 80 hours over two weeks by working nine-hour days the first four days of the first week and eight hours on Friday. The second week, they work four nine-hour days and get Friday off.
About 11,000 of the Fort Worth plant’s 14,000 employees already work the 9/80 schedule, and the company uses this shift arrangement at its other facilities. Lockheed has been working on a transition plan for three months, a company spokesman said.
Switching to the new work schedule was a major bargaining chip in the contract approved by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 776 in July. The company said it was needed to staff the plant for full production of the F-35 at its plant west of downtown Fort Worth.
At the time, there wasn’t a set timetable for making the switch, although the company said it wanted to make the change in the first quarter of 2017. At the time, union president Paul Black was not convinced it would happen so soon. Black, and other union officials, could not be reached by the Star-Telegram for comment.
“The transition to this schedule aligns with the overall production ramp up for the F-35 Lightning II,” Ross said. “To further support the production ramp up, Lockheed Martin will begin increasing staffing in late 2017. Over the next two years, we expect to hire an additional 1,000 mechanics and assemblers.”
About 8,800 employees at Lockheed already work on the F-35. Lockheed officials said it had already built 184 combat-capable jets and planned to deliver about 50 this year. Current plans call for production to increase to about 160 a year by 2019.
Lockheed’s west Fort Worth complex has been undergoing a $1.2 billion upgrade to prepare for increased production of the fighter jet, being built for the U.S. military and several foreign nations.
In recent weeks, Trump has been engaging in a personal dogfight against the F-35. In a Dec. 12 tweet he said the F-35 program and its costs were out of control. Ten days later, after meeting with Lockheed’s CEO Marillyn Hewson, he attacked again, mentioning the “tremendous cost and cost overruns” of the F-35.
Trump said he asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet. At $379 billion, the F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive military contract.
Hewson originally pointed to the company’s efforts to reduce the price of the F-35 to to $85 million “in the 2019 or the 2020 timeframe.” After Trump’s tweet about the F-18, Hewson issued a second statement assuring the incoming president that the company will lower the cost of the F-35.
Analysts said it is unlikely that the Trump administration could instigate a new bidding process for the F-35, which is in its 15th year of development.
This story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.