Alabama Celebrates Airbus

With a light show like a rock concert and organization like a Republican political convention, Airbus announced, to a packed house at the Mobile Convention Center July 2, that it will build its first U.S. assembly line in Mobile.

Never mind that it wasn’t a secret by the time the announcement came—both the New York Times and the Mobile Press-Register had major stories the previous weekend—it was a party.

“It’s fun, ” said a woman who just came for the show. “It’s exciting. You just don’t get many of these.”

Before the program began, elected officials from across the state mingled with Chamber of Commerce leaders, friends called out to friends, people snapped personal photos with the model airplane or the giant digital flag display shining in the background. When miscellaneous background music gave way to “Come Fly With Me” the conversational pitch moved up a notch.

The platform party took the stage, the crowd quieted reluctantly, and Airbus President and CEO Fabrice Bergier walked to the microphone to make it official that his company plans to assemble Airbus 320 aircraft in Mobile. People in the audience jumped to their feet, applauding and waving little American flags.

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Airbus plans seven main buildings on 116 acres at Brookley Field, a $600 million investment that will be ready to assemble planes at the outset of 2015 with the first plane complete by 2016. The firm expects some 3, 000 construction jobs, followed by a steady employment of about 1, 000.

The assembly line itself will be a “carbon copy” of the company’s five existing lines in Europe. It also has an assembly plant in China. The initial target production is four planes a month.

The move makes good business sense, Bergier said. His company already sells aircraft to U.S. airlines and wants to be near its customers. Presidents of four North American airlines—American Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic and Frontier/Republic— were on hand to lend credence to his comments.

The move makes Airbus “visible” in the world’s best market for commercial aircraft, Bregier said, a market that is facing a growing need to replace aging aircraft. 

Almost since the days when the federal government closed operations at Brookley Field, Mobile has been working to attract an aircraft plant to the nearly ideal site with deep-sea port, rail and interstate converging in hailing distance of the large air complex.

It almost happened once before, when Airbus’ parent, EADS, and Northrop Grumman partnered to pursue an Air Force refueling tanker contract. That plane would have been assembled in Mobile. The EADS-Northrop team won the contract, then lost it to Boeing in a bitter rebid battle.

Boeing first weighed in on the Airbus announcement with snippy words, such as these reported in The Wall Street Journal: “While it is interesting once again to see Airbus promising to move jobs from Europe to the United States, no matter how many are created, the numbers pale in comparison to the thousands of U.S. jobs destroyed by illegal subsidies.”

But at the U.K. air show where industry leaders gathered in mid-July, Boeing tempered its comments, saying that customers don’t really care where planes are built—that if they did, Boeing would have 100 percent of the U.S. market now.

And both firms released long-range views of the market for aircraft, showing a demand, in Boeing’s estimate, for 25, 000 aircraft worth $2 trillion over the next 20 years.

U.S. and European unions also critiqued the choice of Alabama, fearing that it’s right-to-work laws would drive down the compensation for workers in one of the two continents’ strongest manufacturing industries.

But for officials, from former Gov. Bob Riley to Mobile County Commission Chair Connie Hudson, from Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions to local state representatives, from the city council to the current Gov. Robert Bentley, the Airbus announcement was pure pleasure.

Said Mobile Mayor Sam Jones: “We’ve worked together for seven-and-a-half years and we’ve built an outstanding relationship. We’ve been to every factory, talked to the workers and we know it’s a quality, quality company. When Airbus lands here, we are prepared to take off.”

By Nedra Bloom

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