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Officials rally to head off Pratt & Whitney closing

The jet engine-maker is rumored to be considering the elimination of up to 3,000 jobs at its Palm Beach County plant but has not disclosed its plans.

Florida officials are looking for ways to stop jet engine-maker Pratt & Whitney from closing its Palm Beach County plant and eliminating as many as 3,000 jobs.

U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., met with local officials and businessmen last week to brainstorm ways to respond to rumors that all or most of Pratt's 4,700 local employees would be moved to Connecticut and California. A trip to meet with Pratt management could be one of the options.

Gov. Jeb Bush, local officials and business leaders also have requested information about the possible move, but Pratt, a subsidiary of East Hartford, Conn.-based United Technologies Corp., hasn't revealed its plan.

Mark Sullivan, spokesman at Pratt's headquarters, said Tuesday the company is considering some changes but is not ready to make an announcement.

"We're looking at potential restructuring actions," he said. "We're looking at a variety of options, and when and if we make a decision, we will announce it to the employees."

Air Force Lt. Col. Gail C. Allen, in charge of the government oversight office at the Palm Beach plant, wrote Aug. 4 to Hansel E. Tookes, president of Pratt's Large Military Engines Division, detailing the Pentagon's concerns about moving the military work out of Florida.

"They are the major customer down there, and it would be foolish not to take them into account," Sullivan said. "We have ongoing conversations with them all the time; they are fully aware of everything that's going on. We're aware of their concerns and we will address them."

In her letter, Allen said the Air Force is worried that a move might compromise Pratt's performance on some military programs. She questions security measures at the Connecticut plants and asks if Pratt can make sure military technology isn't leaked to other countries through the commercial engine programs. She also questions Pratt's ability to separate military and commercial work in Connecticut.

Allen warned that a contract for the Pentagon's new "joint strike fighter," Pratt's major new military program, could be delayed while those issues are settled.

Allen also said she understands Pratt is considering closing the plant over an 18-month period and questions whether that's enough time.

The Palm Beach operation opened in the 1950s when Pratt was looking for a place where engineers could design military and rocket engines in relative secrecy. The military engine program employs about 3,700, and the rocket business has about 1,000 workers. The military program includes only engineering and testing. All Pratt engines, both military and commercial, are assembled in Connecticut.

Pratt has struggled for years over whether to merge the Connecticut and Florida operations. In the early 1990s, the company looked at moving everyone to Florida but decided the cost was too high. A review last fall led to a decision to move 600 engineers to Connecticut.

The possible closure of Pratt's West Palm plant also raises questions about the future of Sikorsky Aircraft's Florida operation, which is located next door. Sikorsky is another United Technologies division.

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