Published in August 2016 issue

On April 25, 2016, just three years after the groundbreaking of the Airbus in Alabama’s Brookley Aeroplex Final Assembly Line, the company reached a major milestone with the delivery of its first-ever US-built airliner, an A321ceo delivered to JetBlue. The event and delivery flight were two very special events.

By Chris Sloan

THE JOURNEY FROM HAMBURG TO MOBILE

The story of the first Airbus aircraft built in the US begins on the other side of the pond. In early June 2015, the fuselage sections of the aircraft were shipped to the United States from Bremerhaven, Germany, together with 4,000 other parts, equivalent to 60% of the aircraft. The rest of the components were sourced from different suppliers in the US, including the buyer-furnished equipment (BFE) and the engines.

Although the major components transported to the US are shipped from Hamburg, these come from different countries in Europe. The front fuselage is built in France, the aft fuselage section and vertical tail plane in Germany, the wings in the United Kingdom, and the horizontal tail plane in Spain.

To outweigh the expenses and potential delays this method may involve, Airbus relies upon low manufacturing costs and a nonunionized workforce. The delivery of additional US-built aircraft components directly to the Alabama Final Assembly Line contains some of the logistical costs.

The 21-day sea journey from Europe is followed by a four-mile road ride to the plant for the 25 days of assembly. In the case of BluesMobile, as the first plane has been dubbed, the first components arrived in Mobile at the end of June to speeches, cheers, and a Mardi-Gras style parade.

BUILDING THE FIRST ‘BUS IN THE US

The final assembly of the first aircraft began in mid-July 2015, Airbus says, when the main fuselage sections were placed in the Transhipment Hangar, which is upstream of the assembly process.

From there, special cranes lifted the components to position them together in Station 41, the first assembly station. As the process goes, this is where the forward and aft fuselage sections are pieced together, as well as internal elements such as the monuments—partitions, closets, and ceilings—and the galleys.

Station 40 is the second workstation at the Final Assembly Line, and is where the mating of the wings and the fuselage takes place. When the premises were inaugurated (Airways, December 2015) BluesMobile’s mating was already underway, and was completed in October 2015. Immediately after that, the aircraft was sent to Station 35, where the vertical and horizontal tail planes, the nose-cone and radome are assembled; the wings are completed; and the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) is installed. The electrical and cabin pressurization system tests are also carried out at this station.

BluesMobile rolled out from the Final Assembly Line on February 24, 2016, ready to receive its engines and paintjob.

Aircraft painting takes place at a MAAS Aviation location on the Airbus manufacturing campus.

The paint hangar has an area of 27,700sq ft (2,600m2) and will be capable of painting all the A320 family aircraft—A318s, A319s, A320s and A321s—Sharklet and NEO options included.

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GET SET, READY… FLY!

BluesMobile emerged from the paint shop on March 4, ready for its first flight, which took place three weeks later. The aircraft soared across the skies for the first time on March 24 at 09:36 local time, flown by Test Pilots Mark McCullins and Bruce Macdonald, accompanied by Flight Test Engineers Thierry Cros and Nick Picconi and Ground Test Engineers/Cabin Specialists Alexander Gentzsch and Mike Johns.

The flight lasted 3 hours and 26 minutes, during which time standard tests were performed on systems, engines, and structure. According to the company, the aircraft reached as high as 39,000ft (11,900m); dynamic flight checks and electrical system tests took place as the jetliner ascended to 31,000ft (9,500m).

After this maiden flight, the aircraft went through a few more weeks in final production before its delivery.

It was the first time in almost half a century that a foreign design airliner was built in the USA.

Back in 1967, Fairchild Hiller planned to build the F.228 in the USA. Derived from the Fokker F.28 Fellowship with a shortened configuration and different engines, it was dubbed the Fairchild F228. However, production came to a halt after two aircraft had been built, when production costs soared.

THE DELIVERY EVENT

The delivery took place one month after the maiden flight. The entire team from the Alabama Final Assembly Line (FAL) marched along with the University of South Alabama band, chanting, “Here we go, JetBlue! Here we go!”

On hand were executives from Airbus, JetBlue senior management—including the airline’s President and CEO Robin Hayes— VIPs from the Gulf Coast region, and members of the media. John Leahy, Airbus Chief Operating Officer for Customers, opened the proceedings with a joke at the expense of rival Boeing, referring to the wooden seats at the scene: “You are sitting in the Boeing seats in the crowd right now. The Airbus seat is much more comfortable.”

How remarkable was the occasion? “We never thought we’d see Airbus airplanes being built in the US in my lifetime,” Leahy said. Airbus had previously teamed up with Northrop Grumman with hopes of building the KC-45 in Alabama—a concept based on the Airbus A330 Multi Role Transport Tanker. That project stalled amid a sour political struggle with Boeing. Yet, Airbus stuck to the idea of building aircraft in the US.

Airbus announced its commitment to build a single-aisle assembly line in Mobile, Alabama, in 2012. Less than a year later, it broke ground for the US$600 million facility. “Forty years ago, we started as a customer of the US industry,” Leahy said. “We became the largest export customer of the US aerospace industry. We spent $16 billion in the US with 400 suppliers. Within 10 years, we will be at over $20 billion spent in the US.”

JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes highlighted his carrier’s relationship with Airbus. “We talk a lot about long-term partnership,” he said. “Airbus truly believed in us when we were getting the airline off the ground.”


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WITHOUT AIRBUS, JETBLUE WOULDN’T BE JETBLUE

“Today is aviation history,” said Jeff Martin, JetBlue Executive Vice President for Operations. “JetBlue received the honor of being the first US delivery customer in large part to the partnership dating back to the beginning.”

Back in 1999, JetBlue placed an initial order for 25 Airbus A320s, with options on another 50 jetliners. Today, the Airbus A320 is the mainstay of JetBlue’s fleet, further complemented by the A321. BluesMobile was the 29th A321—13 of which feature the Mint Premium cabin product— and the 130th A320-family aircraft in the B6 fleet.

“The A321 core aircraft has been a success due to its lower seat costs and being a proven platform.” Martin said. To date, JetBlue’s A321 fleet has a 98% dispatch-reliability record and averages 15 hours per day of utilization, he added.

As for adding BluesMobile to the fleet, Martin said it would take a week or two to install FlyFi and IFE at HAECO Airfames Services in Lake City, Florida (LCQ). After installation, the aircraft would fly to New York on May 9, ready to enter revenue service.

“Without Airbus, JetBlue wouldn’t be JetBlue,” Martin said.

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ONBOARD THE DELIVERY FLIGHT

After the ceremony and the pre-flight formalities, Airways joined eight passengers and three crew members on board this brand-new aircraft, now identified as JetBlue 6994. The delivery flight was commanded by Captain Rick Smith from Athens, Alabama. The First Officer was Captain Bart Robert, JetBlue’s Vice President of Flight.

Captain Smith was joined on the flight deck by his father and wife, who is also a Flight Attendant for JetBlue.

The aircraft was delivered with a 190-sea ‘Core Configured’ layout, with new ergonomic B/E Aerospace Pinnacle seats. In recent years, JetBlue has focused on keeping customers connected throughout their flights, including gate-to-gate Fly-Fi high-speed Internet, high-definition seatback televisions, and in-seat power outlets with USB ports. All of these features are offered on this A321.

The flight was a short 54-minute ‘ramp-to-ramp’ hop from Brookley Mobile Aeroplex to Gateway Lake City, Florida. Upon arrival in Lake City, BluesMobile was immediately whisked into a HAECO hangar to begin its incorporation into the fleet.

ALABAMA, SWEET HOME OF THE A321

At the time of writing, there are nine more A321s in different production stages in Alabama. Eight will be delivered to American Airlines (AA)—to date, the world’s largest Airbus operator, boasting the world’s largest A321 fleet. The ninth aircraft will be delivered to Spirit Airlines (NK).

The second A321—destined for AA—was delivered to the airline on May 17 in a private ceremony.

Airbus anticipates delivering four aircraft per month from the Mobile plant by the end of 2017, as the FAL begins its transition to the New Engine Option (NEO) variant. The plant has the capability of increasing its production rate to eight aircraft per month by adding additional shifts and capital expenditures.

Airbus anticipates that the single-line facility will produce 40 to 50 aircraft each year by 2018, coinciding with the company’s plan to raise the overall production rate of the A320 family to 60 aircraft per month before 2020, a move supported by record numbers of firm orders amid a strong global demand for the type. Airbus expects to achieve this planned production rate with the support of its final production lines in Germany, France, China—and the United States.

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Aviation Journalist, TV Producer, Pursuer of First & Last Flights, Proud Miamian, Intrepid Traveler, and Did I Mention Av-Geek? I've Been Sniffing Jet Fuel Since I was 5, and running the predecessor to airwaysmag.com, Airchive, Since 2003. Senior Contributor. My favorite Airlines are National and Braniff, and My favorite Airport is Miami, L-1011 Tristar Lover. My Mantra is Lifted From Delta's Ad Campaign from the 1980s "I Love To Fly And It Shows." chris@airwaysmag.com / @airchive