A billion-dollar boom

Airbus keeps building and hiring in Mobile, and to top it all off, Airbus and
Quebec acquired Bombardier’s shares of the popular A220 passenger jet
that Bombardier developed.

Jane Nicholes
February 2020

Bill Sisson, president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, expected
great success when Airbus decided to locate a final assembly line in Mobile. He just
didn’t expect it would happen so quickly.

Less than 10 days into 2020, Airbus announced that it would increase the number of
A320 series jets built at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley to seven per month to meet
the demand for that line of jets. Another 275 employees are expected to be hired by
the end of the year to staff both the ramped up A320 assembly line and a second
line under construction for the A220 series. That’s after 600 new workers joined the
Mobile manufacturing site in 2019.

And, a new hangar will be built at cost of $40 million.

“I think it just shows us that this is growing a lot a faster than we even imagined it
would, which is good,” Sisson said. “I thought it would do this, but over a longer
period of time.”

The airplane manufacturer’s total investment in Mobile will top $1 billion. By the
middle of this decade, Airbus expects to be turning out more than 130 jets annually
from its plant in Mobile.

Sisson notes that the Airbus manufacturing sector in Hamburg, Germany, took some
20 years to fully develop, while the new Mobile operation has been up and running
for just five years.

Growth isn’t just happening at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley. Airbus has expanded
to recruit new employees nationwide, while continuing several education and training
initiatives to develop future employees from Mobile and Baldwin counties, according
to  Kristi Tucker, spokeswoman for Airbus in Mobile. The result is new residents
relocating to the Mobile area.

“We joke that we’re not only making new airplanes, we’re making new Mobilians,”
Tucker said.

The commitment by Airbus to the A220 family was reflected both in its projections for
2020 released Feb. 13 and in the announcement that it will acquire a significantly
larger stake from the Canadian firm Bombardier.

Bombardier is pulling out of the commercial airline business by relinquishing its
roughly 30 percent stake in the A220 to Airbus and the government of Quebec.

Airbus will now hold a 75 percent stake, up from 50.1 percent, while Investment
Quebec’s holding rises to 25 percent. The deal is worth $591 million to Bombardier,
whose financial struggles resulted in the original deal with Airbus and ultimately the
creation of the second assembly line in Mobile.

“The 220 platform has a lot of potential,” Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury told
Bloomberg TV in conjunction with the release of its annual report for 2019 and
projections for 2020.

Airbus projects delivery of 880 commercial aircraft worldwide in 2020, up from a
record 863 in 2019 and 800 in 2018. Of the 2019 deliveries, 48 were A220s and 642
were A320s.

The reported overall backlog of orders for all Airbus commercial aircraft was 7,482.

Why are airlines, especially American airlines, ordering enough Airbus planes to
keep Mobilians busy well into the future?

“Airbus has two of the hottest products on the market and both just so happen to be
made in Mobile,” said Chris Curry, president of the Mobile Airport Authority, which
oversees the Mobile Aeroplex and the regional airport in west Mobile.

Both families of airplanes are designed for greater fuel efficiency and passenger
comfort. The A220 series in particular is proving to be a popular alternative to the
CRJ regional jets manufactured by Bombardier, Curry said. In addition, a shortage of
pilots is affecting the entire airline industry, and the Airbus planes can hold more
people.

“You can basically double the amount of people and still have the same amount of
flight crew and pilots to fly it,” Curry said.

Sisson compares the A220 to Goldilocks’ search for what’s “just right” in the House of
the Three Bears.

“I think it’s kind of [like] Goldilocks, the perfect size. I think it serves a lot of community
airports like Mobile. That size aircraft is perfect for feeding hubs and for getting
people from the smaller metropolitan areas to the larger metropolitan areas.”

The Mobile manufacturing facilities have also escaped – for now – the tariffs
proposed by the Trump administration on some international companies. Last fall, a
number of local governments in Mobile and Baldwin counties passed resolutions
asking for federal relief from proposed tariffs that would have damaged the Mobile
operations. Some 950 Airbus employees also signed a letter with the same objective.
As of today, airplane parts which are shipped into Mobile for final assembly are not
subject to the tariffs.

The A220 is in production at the Mobile Aeroplex even though its final assembly line
is not finished. Tucker said the FAL is expected to be ready in the second quarter of
this year. Meanwhile, production is ongoing using space in the A320 facilities and
newly built A220 support hangars.

The first A220 plane that comes out of Mobile will go to Delta Air Lines, Tucker said.
Delivery is expected in the third quarter. Currently that first jet has not been flight
tested or painted. She notes that the first plane off a new assembly line always takes
longer while new employees are being trained and certified.

By the end of this year, the manufacturing work force will be at 1,300, Tucker said.
Another 200 or so employees work at other Airbus facilities in Mobile.

All of these developments gladden the hearts of members of the chamber of
commerce.

“We want to grow,” Sisson said. “We want to grow from within and we want to recruit
new talent to this area. I think that both of those have to happen.”
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