Airbus this week reaffirmed its commitment to the US aviation market at the inauguration of its new $600m final assembly line (FAL) manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama.
The assembly plant is Airbus’s first in the US. Initally announced in 2012, Airbus says it will employ around 1,000 people directly, adding over $400m per year to the Alabama economy. The factory will receive sections of the company’s A320 family shipped from Europe, with these sections fitted together across four different stations in the factory’s flow line, then painted, tested and eventually handed over to customers.
“Our commercial aircraft production in Mobile signifies two things: that Airbus has become the first truly global aircraft manufacturer, and that Airbus is now also a truly American manufacturer,” said Airbus president and chief executive Fabrice Brégier.
“With the addition of our US facility to our production network in Europe and Asia, we have strategically expanded our worldwide industrial base.”
The A320 family (which includes the A318, A319, A320 and A321) is the world’s best selling single-aisle aircraft, with 6,700 delivered to date, and an order backlog of nearly 5,500. According to Barry Eccleston, president of Airbus Americas, somewhere around the world an A320 takes off or lands every two seconds.
Introduced in 1988, the plane can accommodate up to 220 passengers and is widely used for inter-city flight in the US. Over the next 20 years Airbus expects demand in the US single-aisle market to increase significantly, and sees the Mobile facility as key to competing in that market. For the foreseeable future, the FAL will deliver planes exclusively to US customers, including American, Delta, United, Jet Blue and Spirit.
The move also serves as a shot across the bow of archrival Boeing, which up until now has been the sole large manufacturer of commercial aircraft in the US. While Airbus executives in Mobile this week were keen to downplay the Boeing rivalry, it is undoubtedly a statement of intent from the Toulouse-headquartered company.
Mobile was at the centre of a previous skirmish between the two airline giants. In 2008, Airbus Group (at the time called EADS) was awarded a multibillion contract to build the next generation of refuelling tankers for the US Air Force, with Mobile set to be the home of the manufacturing facility. However, following a protest by Boeing to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the bidding process was reopened, with Boeing later awarded the deal.
Despite this setback, Airbus has continued to put down roots in Mobile. It operates an engineering centre that opened there in 2007 and employs more than 200 engineers. Alongside the FAL facility that opened this week, Airbus has an additional 116-acre adjoining site into which it can expand over the coming years if it chooses. The first aircraft will roll off the factory line in spring 2016, and by 2018 the facility will produce between 40 and 50 single-aisle aircraft per year.