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Blue Skies for French Aircraft in Alabama

European aircraft manufacturer Airbus opened its first assembly plant in the United States in September 2015. This symbolic arrival in a place historically home by its competitor Boeing is set to meet a quickly increasing demand from the American market. We went to the town of Mobile, Alabama, to find out more.

The former military base in Mobile is now home to the Airbus site in America. After getting through security we walked into a hangar stretching back 255 meters—the equivalent of three French soccer pitches. The smell of paint and solvents filled the air while overall-wearing technicians bustled around three A320 aircraft in the final assembly phase. The first was commissioned by the budget airline JetBlue, and already had its wings fitted. The other two were set to join the American Airlines fleet.

The main parts for the most completed aircraft arrived from Europe: The fuselage section came from France, the rear section from Germany, the wings from the UK and the ailerons from Spain. We stopped in front of Station 40, where the aircraft are assembled 40 days before delivery. The wings are positioned to be joined to the fuselage, and the cages, bridges, stairs, guardrails, cables and sensors formed an exoskeleton along the steel bodywork. This gleaming assembly line is capable of producing A319, A320 and A321 aircraft.

Only the first two Stations were occupied for the time being. The next two were empty, patiently waiting for the assembly line to move forward next week. When the aircraft arrives at Station 35 its functions undergo a simulation in flight conditions to be tested by a computer. The cabin is then completed in the final Station. The engines are installed last, before final tests are carried out on the runway and the aircraft is taken for its first test flight. The delivery of the first aircraft is set for spring 2016.

From a Gloomy Port Town in Alabama…

In his 1945 work The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, American author Henry Miller wrote of a town he had never visited: “Mobile is a deceptive word. It sounds quick and yet it suggests immobility—glassiness. […] It is a name which suggests water, music, light and torpor. It also sounds remote, securely pocketed, faintly exotic and, if it has any color, is definitely white.” Mobile was the first capital of French Louisiana in 1702, and has preserved its heritage by celebrating the oldest carnival in the United States every year.

The Brookley Field Airbase in Mobile was closed by the Department of Defense in 1969, and the 13,000 on-site employees lost their jobs. Mobile was devastated, and unemployment shot up by 10%. The Austal dockyard worked extensively with the navy and was the town’s leading employer, but this was not enough to revive the region. The USS Alabama, a champion of the Second World War, sat miserably in Mobile Bay between the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

The only time the abandoned air hangars were used was for Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 science-fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that Lieutenant Governor Jim Folsom Jr. decided to attract big businesses and change the image of Alabama, “where the skies are so blue,” according to the song by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

… To the Capital of the Aerospace Industry

The first attempt by EADS (the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company, now Airbus Group) to establish an industrial presence was a failure The Group partnered with Northrop Grumman in 2005 to win a 35-million-dollar contract to deliver 179 KC-30 tanker aircraft to the US Air Force. Boeing was the Group’s main competitor and supplier to the American air defense sector, and attacked the project to win the second call for bids. EADS struggled to fight the American aeronautics giant which was supported by hundreds of lobbyists in Washington D.C., while the European Group only had two…

Nevertheless, Brookey Field grew to become the region’s largest industrial center in 2010, attracting other aeronautic Groups. Airbus opened two sites in Mobile. The Airbus Defense and Space Military Aircraft center was opened some ten years ago to carry out maintenance operations on coastguard aircraft. A second center for engineers specialized in aircraft cabin design was then opened in 2007. The town of Mobile boasts a list of solid advantages for the European aviation Group in its search for an industrial production site: Mobile offers a qualified workforce; the deep-water port is around a 10 minute drive from the Aeroplex site and the main parts for aircraft arrive by container ship from Hamburg; the aerodrome’s runways are vast and empty; the airspace is relatively clear, and most importantly, there is more than enough space to expand.

Alabama: An Industry Goldmine

Alabama has one of the lowest hourly wages in the United States—7.25 dollars per hour—and enjoys low tax rates. But the relaxed regulations on the Alabama job market were not a decisive factor in the Group’s decision to move there. The company states that it “applies the same rules as in Europe.” Fabrice Brégier, the Group Executive Director, even told German newspaper Die Welt last September: “I don’t think our workers need a union to enjoy good relations with Airbus.”

The State of Alabama also invested 158 million dollars to seal the deal, and Airbus pledged an investment of 600 million dollars to set up its site across 47 hectares. The site now employs 295 people, and is constantly recruiting. Some 95% of the employees on the Mobile site are from the Gulf region (Florida, Alabama and Mississippi), and many of them are former soldiers with experience in repairing aircraft and helicopters.

Clifford Wilkinson is Supply Chain Quality Coordinator, and previously worked in Arizona. After being trained in Hamburg (Germany) and Toulouse (France), he joined Airbus in Mobile. “I’ve found the approach to work varies between countries. The Germans are far stricter, for example,” he says. Miranda Johnston is an Aircraft Electrician who spent nine months working in the German assembly plant. She believes training in Europe is “a must” for employees who have experience in maintenance but have everything to learn about production. “Airbus demands far better quality than American companies. European standards are much higher,” says William Wimberly, a Ground Test Inspector originally from Mobile.

Airbus plans to send fewer employees to be trained in Europe. The Group has stated it intends to keep only 25% of its workforce on-site by 2017. Vincent Seurot is a Production Engineer, and one of the 20 French employees currently working in Mobile. He has been an Airbus employee for more than ten years, and he and his family were moved from Saint-Nazaire in France to Alabama for a two-year contract. “I’m in charge of support, expertise and network operations”, he says. “We have to be sure that all the processes function in the same way as on the other Airbus sites.” Moving to the American South went smoothly, although he admits “it’s been hard for the children”. The school programs are far different from the ones found in France, and Mobile does not have an international school. There is a small branch of the Alliance Française, but no real French community.

A Much-Needed American Presence for Airbus

Airbus currently accounts for 19% of the American commercial air transport market, and 40% of new orders over the last two years. “The American domestic market is the largest in the world for single-aisle aircraft—including the A320 model. We just had to be here. Before this move Airbus was only present on the US industrial market.

The company is now a global Group making waves in America, and a leading jobs provider. “Our clients like the ‘made in America’ side to our business, which really is the icing on the cake,” says Ulrich Weber, the site director and an Airbus employee for the last 25 years. He has spent three years working on this project, and previously managed operations on the Group’s site in Tianjin, China, which opened in 2005.

“We wanted to compete with the other Airbus sites across the world, and match their reliability in terms of delivery times and quality”, says Weber. An aircraft assembled in Mobile does cost more than an aircraft produced in Europe due to transportation costs and the euro/dollar parity, but the American fleet of short- and medium-haul aircraft dates back to the 1980’s, and has to be renewed in the next 20 years. A total of 4,700 new aircraft are set to be commissioned. The two biggest success stories in this range are the Boeing B737 and the Airbus A320. There are more than 800 of the latter model currently in operation in the U.S., and some 15 American airlines are clients of the European Group. Airbus currently produces 42 A320 aircraft per month on its sites across the world, and has just announced its plans to increase production to 60 per month. The Mobile site is planning to assemble four aircraft per month by the end of 2017.

The success of Airbus will make the Alabama coastline more appealing, and the workforce of Airbus employees could boost the state economy by stimulating the real estate and local business markets. The Chamber of Commerce has predicted that the European Group’s presence will end up adding around 400 million dollars to Alabama’s GDP, as well as providing some 1000 indirect jobs. Following suite, the Safran group subsidiary Messier-Bugatti-Dowty—specialized in braking and landing systems—and Hutchinson—the French supplier of rubber and plastic materials to the aeronautic sector—have both announced they will setting up on the Aeroplex site. According to William Wimberly, “the opening of the Airbus center has breathed life back into this long-forgotten air base.”

Article published in the December 2015 issue of France-Amérique.

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