Airbus SE is preparing to deliver its first U.S.-made A220 jetliner to Delta Air Lines Inc. as soon as this month, a milestone that comes as the airplane manufacturer marks five years in Alabama where it has had more than a $1 billion economic impact.
Since opening a plant in 2015 in Mobile, Airbus has used it to make more than 180 planes from its other narrow-body family – the A320 – for U.S. customers. Those aircraft have subsequently flown 60 million passengers 500 million miles, Airbus said.
“When we announced our intent to build A320 family aircraft in the United States, and to locate that facility in Mobile, Alabama, we also stated our intent to be a good neighbor, to create jobs and opportunities, and to help strengthen the U.S. aerospace industry,” Jeffrey Knittel, chief executive officer of Airbus Americas, said. “Five years later, we have become a major economic driver in creating an aerospace hub on the Gulf Coast.”
The Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility officially began producing its first aircraft, an A321 destined for JetBlue, on Sept. 14, 2015.
Since then, the Airbus production team has:
- Directly employed more than 1,000 people (90% who currently live in Mobile or Baldwin County; 26% being military veterans; representing 29 nationalities).
- Announced and opened a second assembly line for A220 aircraft (doubling the size of its footprint at Brookley Field).
- Supported more than 40 local charitable and community organizations through money, time and donations.
“The achievements of the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing team over these past five years are just the beginning,” Knittel said. “We are proud to call Mobile our American aircraft manufacturing home, and we look forward to many more years of partnership with the community, our customers and suppliers.”
Doubling down on the Alabama site with a new assembly line building A220s, an advanced Canadian-designed jet, enables Airbus to avoid U.S.-imposed tariffs for the planes it delivers to American carriers. As trade tensions flare and a long-running dispute nears its resolution in the World Trade Organization, the U.S. outpost shores up the global reach of the world’s largest planemaker and its growing presence on Boeing Co.’s home turf.
“Mobile will not be affected relative to the WTO strategy,” Knittel told Bloomberg. “As a matter of fact, Mobile has proven the logic of a broad-based industrial footprint.”
Over the coming weeks, a panel of three WTO arbiters will determine whether the European Union can retaliate against the U.S. for any illegal subsidies provided to Boeing. The trade body has already awarded $7.5 billion to the U.S. in a parallel dispute about European subsidies to Airbus. The latest ruling could spur the two sides to settle their 15-year-old trade battle.
While Boeing confines its jet assembly to the U.S., Toulouse, France-based Airbus has extended its industrial footprint into key international markets. It produces A320 aircraft in four countries: Germany, France, China and the U.S. The A220, which Airbus acquired from struggling Bombardier Inc., is made in Quebec and Mobile.
Airbus’s expansion anticipated a “new phase in globalization,” marked by increasingly nationalistic policies and trade restrictions, said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia. “That’s the big picture, one that requires a greater in-country presence. It’s no longer taking open borders for granted.”
The strategy has its downsides. With its facilities spread out in different countries, Airbus wasn’t able to move as quickly as Boeing to pare output and costs after the coronavirus pandemic caused demand for new jetliners to plunge. In Mobile, Airbus is pausing plans to speed up A320 production as it cuts global output for the jetliner family to 40 planes a month, Knittel said.
Delta has taken only three of the 17 of the smaller A220-100 jets it was originally scheduled to receive this year, and its plans for the Mobile-made A220-300 models aren’t clear. The carrier has been working with Airbus to minimize deliveries over the next 18 to 24 months, Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian said in July.
Still, to avoid larger-scale layoffs in its U.S. operations, Airbus plans to shift some employees from A320 production to the A220 line, where work is still ramping up, Knittel said. Airbus plans to build four A220 a month in Mobile by mid-decade, which would double its current output.
“We’re working through the issues. We’ve basically flattened the production rate,” Knittel said of the Mobile site’s response to the market turmoil. “We’re hopeful that in the future things will pick back up, but we have to prepare for the climate we’re in.”
Airbus said its newly expanded delivery center in Mobile will be named after one of the company’s former leaders, Tom Enders. Enders supported and drove the establishment of an Airbus aircraft production facility in the U.S. during his tenure as CEO of Airbus. A dedication ceremony will be held in the coming months.
On this fifth anniversary of production in Alabama, the University of South Alabama Center for Real Estate and Economic Development reported that Airbus has had a $1.1 billion economic impact in Mobile and Baldwin counties these first five years, supporting more than 12,000 jobs through construction and payroll alone. When extended to the state of Alabama, the impact was $1.2 billion and more than 15,000 jobs.
(With assistance from Bryce Baschuk. Alabama NewsCenter contributed to this report.)