It was July, 2012, when Airbus formally announced its first Aircraft assembly site on U.S. soil — a $600 million site to be built in Mobile, Alabama at Brookley Field. Airbus’ interest in Mobile actually goes back much further, to 2005, when the European Aeronautic Defense and Space company (EADS) chose Mobile as the potential building site for a proposed U.S. Air Force aerial refueling tanker. A few months later, Northrop Grumman announced it would partner with EADS to develop the tanker, in competition with Boeing’s KC-46A Pegasus, built on the Boeing 767 platform. EADS originally won the tanker contract, but Boeing protested the award, which eventually led to an admission of flaws in the bidding process by the Air Force. The contract was put up for re-bid, and Boeing eventually won.
Brookley Field was the site of Mobile’s first municipal airport, known as Bates Field. But the Army Air Corps took over the site in 1938 and established it as Brookley Army Air Field. During World War II, Brookley served as a major training site and supply depot, supporting the Southeastern U.S. and Caribbean. Airbus Chairman of the Americas Allan McArtor told us that Brookley was selected for its pre-existing airport, a good runway, ATC tower, and proximity to a deep water port. When asked if labor costs were a factor in choosing Mobile, Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier said, “If we were looking specifically for cheap labor, we would build airplanes in Mexico.”
On site at the manufacturing facility, we first saw the Transshipment Hangar. This is where the large components are staged, after being offloaded from a ship a few miles away at the Port of Mobile. Prior to being loaded onto a ship, the components (including the wings, vertical stabilizer, horizontal stabilizer, engine pylons and fuselage sections) are shipped from their respective fabrication sites around Europe to Hamburg, Germany.
Airbus spokeswoman Kristi Tucker told us the facility is pretty much to support North American customers, which include Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Spirit, United and Virgin America, but they could go somewhere else, if needed. There are currently two aircraft on the production line, A321s for jetBlue and America Airlines. By 2017, the facility will go to “Rate 4,” or four aircraft per month. Tucker said the facility has the capability to produce up to eight monthly, with very little adjustment. McArtor elaborated on that further, explaining that a second paint shop would be required, along with an expanded flight line at which to park planes undergoing pre-delivery testing. The site sits on 116 acres, with another 116 acres available, should the need arise.
Airbus Manager of Product Quality Timo Zaremba guided us through our tour of the facilities, at which all three types in the A320 family (A319, A320, and A321) will be built.” We are producing the major components in locations throughout Europe. We have the funny job of fitting all of these major components on an airplane,” he said. The first planes will be built with the current engine option, or CEO. Then in late 2017 or early 2018, a transition will be made to the new engine option, known as the NEO. When walking into the facility, the first station you come upon is Station 41, (pictured above) where the aft fuselage is joined with the forward fuselage. This process takes about 3,000 rivets. “Monuments” such as cabin galleys and lavatories are also installed at this point.
The planes’ next stop is Station 40, where the wings are joined, using a brand new automatic drilling process, yet to be implemented at other Airbus sites. The joining process takes approximately 1,200 additional rivets for each wing, set to an accuracy within one tenth of a millimeter. The landing gears are also installed and tested at Station 40. After this point, the plane is moved on its own wheels.
Tucker told us that when the announcement was made to build the A320 family in the United States in 2012, Airbus has about 19 percent of the domestic market share for commercial airliners. Now, three years later, they hold about 40 percent of the market. However, Airbus admittedly says that while airlines have expressed excitement to have U.S.-built planes, they can’t verify whether having them built here has directly contributed at an order.
The Airbus A320 series of aircraft is the workhorse aircraft for many of the world’s airline fleets. Since its introduction in the 1980s, the aircraft has received over 12,000 orders. Airbus says they currently home the domestic market share lead, when comparing the A320 to the 737-Next Generation, and predicts 4,730 new single-aisle planes will be needed to support U.S. airlines between now and 2035. “We don’t have very many customers here in the United States, but they are some of the biggest airlines,” said Barry Eccleston, President of Airbus Americas. American Airlines is Airbus’ largest customer in the world, having a fleet of A320-family aircraft, as well as A330s. Many of these planes originated with U.S. Airways, prior to the airlines’ merger in 2013. American also inherited orders for the widebody Airbus A350, which first went into service with Qatar Airways in January of this year. American is slated to begin receiving their A350s in 2017.