Airbus defies naysayers with Alabama plant for new jet

Airbus defies naysayers with Alabama plant for new jet
The Airbus A220 will soon be produced in Mobile. (Airbus)

Airbus SE has broken ground for a new factory in Mobile, Alabama, defying predictions by archrival Boeing Co. that the plant would never be built.

By midyear, mechanics will begin assembling the first American-made A220, a single-aisle jetliner developed by Bombardier Inc. and taken over by Airbus last year. Delivery of the initial plane with made-in-the-USA label is slated for next year.

The new factory caps a dizzying turnaround for the Canadian-designed aircraft formerly known as the C Series, which Airbus rescued in 2018 after working for years to stymie sales. Bombardier turned to the European planemaker after Boeing rejected overtures. The U.S. aerospace giant then waged a high-profile and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to slap duties on imports of the jets by Delta Air Lines Inc.

Jeff Knittel, CEO of Airbus Americas, speaks at the groundbreaking for the A220 assembly line in Mobile. (Airbus)

“That plane with our Airbus brand, with our support, our procurement and our sales is a game-changer,” said Jeff Knittel, Airbus’s Americas chief.

Boeing spat

In November 2017, Boeing at the height of the trade spat argued in a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that Airbus and Bombardier were “extremely unlikely ever to actually establish a C Series assembly line in Alabama.”

Building a new factory would “make no economic sense,” the Chicago-based company said, contending there were too few orders to support a second production facility beyond the existing one in Mirabel, Quebec.

Airbus has been shoring up sales and production of the jetliner since taking control over the unprofitable C Series program on July 1. The economic case once questioned by Boeing has grown stronger after a flurry of recent deals expanded the backlog of unfilled A220 orders to 480 aircraft.

The initial sales and a top-up order by Delta show that there is ample demand to support a second factory in Mobile, Knittel said. Airbus is in discussions with several U.S. customers, he said, declining to provide specifics.

“The trendline is terrific,” he said. “I am not concerned about filling the backlog.”

Final assembly of the A220 jets in the U.S. “is a vital selling point for most U.S.-based customers,” Airbus said. Even so, Airbus and Bombardier plan to build the first 40 A220s ordered by Delta in Mirabel.

Airbus is looking to achieve a “significant double-digit’’ reduction in production costs of the A220, said Philippe Balducchi, who runs the partnership with Bombardier. “The targets we have in our plan are achievable,’’ while conceding, “they are not easy.”

The desired savings likely represent about $3 million per plane, according to Benoit Poirier, an analyst at Desjardins Capital Markets.

In a twist, the new Airbus factory will be modeled on the production system that Bombardier created in Mirabel rather than mimic a neighboring A320 plant in Mobile, said Florent Massou, head of the A220 program. That’s unexpected, given the mass-production techniques that Airbus and Boeing have forged as they push single-aisle jet output to record-high levels.

When Boeing took control of McDonnell Douglas Corp.’s MD-95 program following the companies’ 1997 merger, for example, engineers created an elaborate cable system to move jets and copy the moving line created for the 737 program.

The new Alabama plant will produce the A220 in using the same system as the plant in Mirabel, Quebec. (Airbus)

Tripling output

The jigs, tooling and robotics at Mirabel are all cutting-edge, part of a lean production system that will eventually make 10 of the aircraft a month. But the engineers’ desks scattered around the factory floor hint at the problem-solving needed to triple output by the mid-2020s.

“Technically, the production processes haven’t changed,” Massou told reporters at Mirabel this week. Rather than changing out equipment, Toulouse, France-based Airbus has focused on how work is organized to make sure that unfinished tasks aren’t handed over to workers downstream, while training mechanics to be more efficient.

The Alabama final assembly line will look “exactly like this,” Massou said Jan. 14, from a balcony overlooking the Mirabel factory floor, where two lines of A220s were slowly taking shape. That’s so workers at the two factories can share the tribal knowledge that comes with repeating tasks – the learnings that drive down cost and speed production times for aircraft, he said.

Boeing-Embraer

Including the new factory, Airbus’s total investment in Mobile will approach $1 billion, Knittel said.

Bombardier has committed to providing as much as $700 million in funding to the A220 partnership through 2021, Chief Financial Officer John Di Bert said last month. The figure includes a commitment of $350 million for 2019.

Airbus and its partners are investing $300 million in the Mobile facility against the uncertain economic fallout from Brexit, and the emerging competitive threat of a joint venture that will give Boeing control of rival aircraft made by Brazil’s Embraer SA.

“It’s sometimes hard to predict the future, but it didn’t take a genius” to anticipate the Boeing-Embraer tie-up, Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders told reporters. “We’re helped by the fact that we have by far the best aircraft in the A220.”

 

(Contact the reporters at [email protected] and [email protected].)

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