Fabrice Brégier and the A320 neo, the Plan B when it came to America

There were a few pointers to what the plan is at the new Airbus facility in Mobile, Alabama today, on the eve of its official launch.

One was a ‘subtle’ change in its name. It’s no longer the Final Assembly Line for A320s in America. It’s ‘the Airbus US Manufacturing Facility’.

And inside the first two A320s in said facility, for JetBlue and American Airlines, are the current A321 model, the highest capacity jet in the single aisle family, and the version that is doing by far the most damage to rival plane maker Boeing is terms of recent orders, and in particular for the new engine technology or NEO model.

Even before Airbus president and CEO Fabrice Brégier spoke to media in the southern port city an official leading a tour through the facility said every A320 that was completed in it during its first year would be an A321 CEO (or current model), before they segued into the more advanced NEO form by late 2017 or early 2018.

When M Brégier held his briefing he said, “This is the most significant game changer in US aerospace in decades.

“It signifies the Airbus is truly an American manufacturing entity, and it turns the Gulf Coast region into a new aerospace industry hub.”

It is also where Airbus was going to built 179 aerial tankers for the US Air Force based its twin engine wide body airliner the A330 after it won a contest for selection for the contract in 2008.

That win was overturned in February 2011 in Boeing’s favor for a less efficient tanker based on the Boeing 767 platform, which hasn’t yet overcome a series of delays and cost overruns.

But what Airbus is doing with the Mobile site is, on the numbers, going to be far more valuable than the tanker would have been, and an additional costly unintended consequence for its American rival.

Airbus Mobile will be making four A321s a month by the end of 2017, with first deliveries to US carriers starting in April next year. It says it could bring that up to eight a month without undue extra cost or time if required, which seems likely, given the strength of its single aisle sales and the inability of Boeing to convince key buyers that the 737-9 MAX, it’s largest capacity new engine tech single aisle offering, is competitive with the specifications of the A321 NEO.

Airbus predicts total North American demand for new jets for expansion or replacement of existing airliners as 5880 by 2034 of which about 80 percent will be single aisle airliners favoring Airbus on a 6:4 sales ratio.

(Only 150 very large jets are expected to be bought by US carriers in this current 20 year market outlook, which if true means Mobile won’t be assembling A380s or whatever high capacity twin engine airliner Airbus has in mind for the latter part of this period. Mobile is totally focused on the high volume and highly profitable single aisle jet airliner market.)

This part of the jet market brings Airbus and Boeing massive potential profits from upgrading their existing A320 and 737 lines for a fraction of the development costs of all new designs.

At the moment sales of the Airbus A320 NEO versions total 4193, while the Boeing MAX series, which will come to market two years later, has sold 2727 of those jets.

Both sets of figures keep rising, and outpacing market forecasts.

The demand could readily see the rise of new airliner manufacturers in China, Russia or India by 2030, driven in part by the predicted inability of Airbus and Boeing to make single aisle jets in the numbers needed by airlines.

That risk has already seen Airbus open a final assembly line in Tianjin, exclusively delivering new A320s to China’s fast growing airlines.

M Brégier says that the establishing of manufacturing capabilities in China, and the US, was essential to giving Airbus a global foundation.

It’s the reverse model to that employed by Boeing in its Dreamliner project, where key parts of the 787 family were out sourced to offshore makers and then imported into the US for final assembly.

Airbus is keeping almost all of the physical making of large parts to itself, but then exporting them for final assembly to major airlines in China and North America.

The logic of this is to raise the job prospects and security for the European employees of Airbus and its contractors in the design and manufacture of much of the airliners by making sales for jets that can be delivered to customers far sooner than was otherwise going to be the case.

In total Airbus is moving to a current total production rate target of 50 A320s of all sizes a month in the near future, and may even rack that up to 60 a month.

The Americanization of Airbus had already started long before the USAF tanker foray and its transformation into Airbus Mobile.

That story began with a design and engineering centre in Wichita, Kansas, in 2002, and it currently has 3800 direct employees in 16 states involved in defence, space and helicopter programs, supporting 260,000 US based jobs.

Mobile as of today directly employs 260 people, rising to about 1000 if A320 completions rise to eight a month.

It’s more than a fair bet that Airbus Mobile is going to get bigger, much bigger, than predicted.

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