Published in December 2015 issue
Airbus Industries officially launched its new North American plant in Mobile, Alabama. This new Final Assembly Line joins the manufacturer’s network of facilities in France, Germany, Spain, and China.
By Chris Sloan
To the sounds of Sweet Home, Alabama and the applause of the ambassadors of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom to the United States, Airbus Industries has launched its new North American assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama. At the new Final Assembly Line (FAL), where the manufacturing activity has reawakened a shuttered US Air Force base, a foreign aircraft maker has begun building jetliners on US soil for the first time.
“What Airbus is doing here in Mobile is a successful extension of what we seek to do everywhere: design and make great aircraft to serve people,” Fabrice Brégier, Airbus CEO, told a standing-room only crowd during the September inauguration ceremony.
Factory workers in blue ‘Airbus In Alabama’ shirts took the stage for the festivities and welcome ceremony to Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly, an unusual song choice, considering they clearly already know how to fly and build aircraft.
The ceremony highlighted the importance of America to Airbus’s global strategy—and the importance of Airbus to the Southern city’s struggling economy. The FAL has been specifically constructed to build Airbus A320-family aircraft destined for North American customers, and joins sister factories in Toulouse (France), Hamburg (Germany), and Tianjin (China), where the company recently announced that A330s would be constructed beginning in 2018.
The Mobile FAL opens with ambitious goals. Plans call for an initial production rate of two A320-family aircraft per month, ramping up to four aircraft per month by the end of 2017. With the A321 called ‘the heart of the US market’, the initial deliveries on the horizon are for that stretched variant. A320neo family deliveries are scheduled to begin in late 2017 or early 2018, with no drop in production rate.
The plant has the capability to eventually increase its production rate to eight aircraft per month by adding additional shifts (up from the one shift at the onset) and capital expenditures. Airbus anticipates that the single-line facility will produce 40 to 50 aircraft per year by 2018. This coincides with the company’s overall plan to raise the current monthly worldwide production rates of the A320 family from 42 to 50 by the first quarter of 2017, to fulfill a backlog of 5,439 single-aisle orders out of a total of 12,139 deliveries. The production rate could escalate to as high as 60 A320 family aircraft per month by the end of the current decade.
These lofty production goals rely on the Mobile plant as a crucial player in the A320 family aircraft program. The property, the former Brookley Air Force Base, has a total footprint of 116 acres (47 hectares). Almost half of it, 53 acres (21ha), has been developed with buildings and tarmacs.
THE OPENING CEREMONY
“This journey,” Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions said at the ceremony, “has been like the old sports promo: ‘The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.’”
Mobile’s landing of the FAL had not been easy. In 2008 it had been selected as the place in which to build the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), a replacement for the US Air Force’s KC-135E Stratotanker, and the A330 freighter as well. Airbus, or EADS, as its parent company was then known, was working in conjunction with Northrop Grumman. But Boeing had protested that its bid had been unfairly judged, and, by February 2011, it had won the $35 billion contract.
“Defeat may serve as well as victory. We never gave up on Mobile,” said Tom Enders, the Airbus Group’s CEO. Taking a dig at Boeing, he added: “Some people thought that, by [opening a plant in the US], we were over-stepping our bounds, but they are not in the building today.”
Enders played a key role in bringing the Airbus plant to Alabama. During the 2011 Paris Air Show, shortly after the failed MRTT proposal, an unbowed contingent led by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley had secretly met with Enders. With a flagging economy back home, but a strong aerospace workforce, an attractive deepwater port, and a growing record for attracting European company manufacturing, the governor had been determined to bring Airbus investment and jobs to Alabama.
In the face of significant competition from other states, the negotiations had dragged on for a year. At the end of the day, the Republican governor had been able to deliver incentives totaling $158 million. The agreement allowed the state to withhold cash if Airbus failed to meet investment and jobs targets.
Local incentives, to the tune of $33.6 million, had also been part of the package. City and county entities and the Mobile Airport Authority had also made contributions, including lease payments, money for new construction, site preparation, land lease assistance, and roadway improvements.
According to the Alabama Department of Commerce, the $158 million incentive includes $82 million in funds for capital investments in the plant and other expenses; $52 million for a 40,000-square-foot on-site training center, and state corporate income tax credit tax breaks on manufacturing equipment.
“We were honored when Airbus announced their plans to come to our state and show confidence in Alabama as a great location for aviation manufacturing,” Bentley said. “To Alabama, the new Airbus manufacturing facility means progress for our state and the promise of great things to come. The company’s investment in our state and in the local community will have a great impact for years to come. We are excited that, soon, the world’s best aircraft will be made by Alabamians in Alabama.”
LET’S GO TO WORK… TOGETHER!
The $600 million plant had been announced in July 2012, and ground was broken in April 2013. This wasn’t Airbus’s first relationship in Alabama—two other Airbus facilities preceded the new factory.
Adjacent to the new Brookley complex is the Airbus Engineering Center, where more than 200 engineers are responsible for various interior elements of aircraft, including the design and engineering of the cabin, crew rest, lavatories and galleys. This center, which had first opened in 2007, was particularly instrumental in the A350 program. The Airbus Military Service Center at Mobile Regional Airport is a long-running operation supporting the US military’s C212 transport aircraft. The site offers maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) services, component repair, extensive material services, and engineering and technical support for US operators of the C212 and larger CN235 tactical transports.
“The sky is not the limit. The sky is the home, and Mobile is home of the Airbus Group.” Enders said amid the fanfare for the FAL’s opening. “Let’s bring the best products to the world’s biggest market. Let’s work together. Let’s win by combining talent and tenacity.”
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BUILDING THE ‘BAMA BUS
Most major components required to build an Airbus A320 airliner, except buyer-furnished equipment (BFE), engines, and US-built content (some 40% of the aircraft) are transported by ship from Hamburg to the Port of Mobile. The 21-day sea journey is followed by a four-mile road ride to the plant for the 25 days of assembly.
The plant is currently staffed with 260 employees, including a full-time delivery crew and Test Pilots. Once the plant reaches its full potential of eight aircraft per month, staffing could rise to 1,000. The current staff had been trained and worked at the Hamburg factory, where their German colleagues had reportedly been impressed with the level of their work.
Despite the expense and potential delays of these logistics, Airbus had been beguiled by Mobile’s low manufacturing costs and non-unionized force, as well as the attractions of being in the ‘dollar-zone’, to balance euro exchange-rate fluctuations. The plant enjoys further economies by taking advantage of the best practices of other Airbus FALs.
THE TRANSSHIPMENT HANGAR
The major components transported to the United States, although they are shipped from Hamburg, come from different countries in Europe. The front fuselage is built in France. The aft fuselage section and vertical tail plane are built in Germany. The wings are constructed in the United Kingdom and the horizontal tail plane is made in Spain.
They all arrive at the Transshipment Hangar. From there, the aircraft parts, known as Major Component Assemblies (MCAs), are sent to the massive FAL, which is divided into four work stations.
The first, known as Station 41, is where the forward and aft sections of the fuselage are joined, and where internal elements, such as the galleys, are installed. Station 40, the FAL’s second work station, is where the wings and the fuselage are joined. Landing gear is also installed at this station, which utilizes new automatic drilling units to install 2,400 rivets, an Airbus first.
The third work station, named Station 35, is where the airplane powers on its own. The vertical and horizontal tail planes are assembled and the wings are completed here. The Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) are also mounted, and the installation of the cabin furnishing begins. The nose cone and radome are also added here, and power up of the aircraft is first initialized.
At the final station, called the Dock, the final cabin installation occurs. The landing gear functions are checked. The lighting, inflight entertainment (IFE), and cabin pressurization systems are installed and tested. Then, the nearly complete aircraft leaves the FAL hangar.
In a separate building, which can accommodate up to two aircraft at a time, comes the Final Phase/Flight Line. The engines are hung here, and final testing is carried out before the aircraft returns outside and is sent to the paint shop.
MAAS Aviation will be in charge of painting all Airbus aircraft assembled in Mobile. The paint hangar has an area of 27,700sq ft (2,574m2) and is capable of painting all A320 family aircraft: A318s, A319s, A320s and A321s, equipped with Sharklets and neo options.
Airbus has also opened a delivery center—its fourth—with US-based flight crews for Airbus and customer test flights. Deliveries from Airbus in Alabama will be limited to North American customers. With the enormous order backlog, many A320 family airframes will still be assembled in Toulouse and Hamburg even when the production rate ends up ramping up.
THE SINGLE-AISLE MARKET: A BURGEONING DEMAND
The single-aisle mainline jetliner segment is certainly burgeoning. Airbus forecasts a worldwide demand for more than 20,000 single-aisle aircraft over the next 20 years.
According to Airbus Americas President Barry Eccleston, the prospects are bullish. “We have over 12,000 firm orders and have delivered 6,700 A320 family aircraft,” he said.
Chicago-based Boeing, for its part, assembles the 737 at a rate of 42 per month at a single factory in Renton, Washington, but plans to raise 737 production to 47 per month by 2017, and to 52 per month by 2018. Boeing says it could easily ramp up to 60—even while the 737 MAX prototype has begun production, with deliveries first scheduled in 2017. As of the end of August, the 737 had 4,269 aircraft on back-order and deliveries of 8,674 airframes.
According to Airbus, the A320 has 54% of the market share against the Boeing 737 family aircraft. The forthcoming new engine option (neo) variant has helped to drive this market share. “The neo has secured 4,193 orders from 74 customers,” Eccleston said.
Airbus already reports 1,340 airplanes in operation with North American operators. The US continues to be the world’s largest market, with a demand for 4,730 single-aisle aircraft in North America over the next 20 years. The market forecast extends to 1,000 twin aisle aircraft and 150 Very Large Aircraft (VLAs).
If successful, Airbus Mobile could be a candidate for additional work. Allan McArtor, Chairman and CEO of Airbus Group, Inc., said that, in a “tie-breaking situation,” the ‘Made In America’ promise could make the difference in winning an order. Further, Airbus doesn’t rule out one day delivering aircraft assembled here to non-North American customers— which would allow it to tap Ex-Im Bank financing.
With these eye-popping forecasts and optimism, the historic flag that Airbus Mobile has planted on US soil is poised to become ever more significant.