Controversy is nothing new for the state of Alabama where this week its governor resigned surrounded by a sulfurous cloud of financial and personal scandals. Yet even this development pales in comparison to the state’s losing the contract for the U.S. Air Force tankers that Airbus/EADS had expected to win six years ago.
But only positive vibrations emanated from the state when Global Atlanta and a delegation from the French American Chamber of Commerce Atlanta-Southeast chapter visited the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility in the port city of Mobile on Tuesday where the tankers originally were to have been built.
It certainly wasn’t always like that. Boeing, the American global aircraft manufacturer, and Airbus/EADS, the European multinational aerospace and defense corporation that manufactures the Airbus aircraft, were at loggerheads over the contract to build tankers that could conduct aerial refueling for fighter planes.
In 2001, the Air Force first awarded Boeing the sole-source contract to lease 100 of its KC 767 tankers, but that deal collapsed in scandal over its high costs and Boeing’s move to hire the Air Force official who worked on the program.
A second round was eventually launched which Airbus sought to win as a way to give its parent EADS a long-sought foothold in the U.S. and establish itself as a major player in the U.S. defense market.
An EADS win would have meant the development of Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex drawing suppliers to the Gulf Coast and creating the new center of aerospace that was hoped for by the local officials.
In 2008, the Air Force complied by selecting EADS, which was greeted with an outraged political uproar from legislators besieged by Boeing supporters and lobbyists. The Government Accountability Office eventually found problems with the way that the Air Force made its selection and nixed the deal awarding the contract to Boeing instead.
While Airbus and Mobile officials were caught by surprise and had to cancel their anticipated victory celebration, they didn’t relent in their pursuit, persevered and counted their assets.
The Mobile officials continued to see a match with Airbus because of the city’s deepwater port, which could accommodate ships carrying the large structural parts from various locations in Europe. The Brookley site, once a thriving military base, also would be ideal for Airbus because of its easy access to the port, its two runways and only minimal commercial air traffic.
Kristi Tucker, an Airbus spokesperson at the plant, told the French American Chamber delegation that the 1,650-acre location would allow unified construction for the facility in contrast to Airbus facilities in both Hamburg, Germany, or Toulouse, France, the location of Airbus’ headquarters, where shuttle buses are required to go to-and-from their different units.
The state’s Mobile officials joined with their national representatives and senators to provide a unified front, aware that most of the benefits from the foreign direct investment in the automotive field by auto manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz, Honda and Hyundai benefited portions of the state to its north.
This was even more so for the military contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman as well as Boeing and other aerospace companies that clustered near Huntsville at the state’s most northern border and near to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
Meanwhile, the EADS officials responded warmly to Mobile’s encouragement recognizing that by locating global production in Mobile, Airbus would reduce the transport costs of U.S. components it buys constantly, and not have to worry about exchange rate swings between the dollar and the euro. Other considerations were the wage rates in a right-to-work state and most importantly a base from which to challenge Boeing, its main competitor, on upcoming contracts.
It wasn’t long before Airbus came back in early 2012 with a new proposal: an assembly line for its A320 production line, the A319, the A320 and the larger A321. Mobile, the state and the county responded with an incentive package and the construction of the transshipment and final assembly line hangars, the service building and the logistics center began.
The facility currently only assembles the major components that started to arrive in June 2015 with production beginning in July 2015.
The component assemblies including fuselage, wings, vertical and horizontal tail planes arrive from Airbus’s European facilities. The front fuselage are manufactured in France, the rear fuselage in Germany, wings in the United Kingdom and the horizontal tail plane in Spain.
All of these components are first transported to Hamburg where they are loaded onto special cargo ships for a 21-day journey to Mobile’s port. Once there, they are carried on a four-mile road trip to the Manufacturing Facility. Their passage then includes inspections, cataloguing and final assembly.
To date the facility has assembled 26 planes with the 25th to be delivered to Delta Air Lines Inc. this week and No. 26 to American Airlines Inc. in the near future. These airlines are two of the 11 U.S. North American customers, Ms. Tucker said.
The demand for its planes is so great, Ms. Tucker added, that it would take nine years to fill all the orders already accounted for. The U.S. demand is at a point, she also said, that the Airbus facilities in France and Germany must continue to assist in meeting it.
While the Mobile facility by the end of the year will be assembling the A321s at a rate of four a month totaling about 50 a year, she said, adding that the facility has been built to handle a rate of as many as eight a month, although to date that has not been stated as its intent.
Currently there are approximately 360 full-time Airbus employees and the facility is responsible for some 300 indirect support jobs. At first before the facility was built, there were 200 employees hired, who spent from six to nine months with trainers in Europe. Some 80 expatriate French, German, Spanish and British trainers then came to Mobile where they have mostly fulfilled their contracts and are preparing their returns home.
The facility has been flooded with applications, according to Ms. Tucker, due to the prevalence of former military personnel in the area, state training initiatives to promote economic development and technical schools. While European professionals were needed to kick start the project, those days are over, she added.
“Our personnel no longer have to go to Europe for training. Yes, the loss of the tanker project, taken away twice, was a blow, but then we asked ‘What else could we do,’ and now we have a better deal with a nine year backlog of orders and suppliers like the Irish company (MAAS Aviation Group) right here.”
To learn more about activities of the French American Chamber, click here.