Delta buying jets from … Alabama?

MOBILE, Ala. — An old Air Force base here is finding new life as the home of an Airbus assembly plant building jets for Delta Air Lines and other carriers.

The $600 million plant, opened in 2015, is one of four Airbus aircraft manufacturing plants — and the only one in the United States.

“It just made sense for us to be closer to our customers,” Airbus spokeswoman Kristi Tucker told a recent group of visitors to the facility, including a delegation with the French-American Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta. “You locate where your biggest customers are.”

From Delta’s headquarters in Atlanta, the Airbus facility in Mobile is about 330 miles away, a roughly 4.5 hour drive or a 1 hour and 20 minute flight. That’s much closer than Airbus’s headquarters in Toulouse, France. 

Airbus said the vast majority of airliners assembled in Mobile will go to customers in North America. Geography has not typically been a critical factor in aircraft buying decisions, but it may count for something in an era of concerns about globalization and offshoring.

When the plans for the Mobile facility were announced, for example, Delta’s then-CEO Richard Anderson said “it will be great to see the A320 family of aircraft delivered from here in the U.S.”

The 53-acre Airbus facility at the Mobile Aeroplex at the old Brookley Air Force Base site makes A319, A320 and A321 jets — all among the company’s smaller models — that move through assembly stages in a hangar that’s longer than two football fields.

With the Mobile facility up and running, both of Georgia’s neighbors to the east and west have airliner assembly plants. Boeing opened a 787 Dreamliner final assembly plant in 2011 in North Charleston, S.C.

While Georgia has a Lockheed-Martin military plant and the headquarters of business jet maker Gulfstream, it is better known for the world’s busiest airport than for aircraft production.

Winning the Airbus plant was a boost to Mobile, which had endured a painful shutdown of the Air Force base in 1969.

‘Time kind of stopped’

“The closure of that military base was kind of devastating for Mobile,” Mobile County commissioner Connie Hudson said. “Time kind of stopped there.”

Airbus had earlier planned to build Air Force tankers at the Mobile site in partnership with defense contractor Northrop Grumman. But in 2011, it suffered another devastating loss when rival Boeing won the massive Air Force tanker deal.

The site, now an industrial complex with a general aviation airport, has several features that made it attractive for aircraft assembly: A deep-water port where components can be brought in,plenty of available space and access to two infrequently-used runways, one of them 9,000 feet long.

And, “the ability to fly test flights over the Gulf is a great selling point,” said Troy Wayman, vice president at the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.

As Airbus considered the site, money also came into play: State and local officials in Alabama pledged incentives worth nearly $158.5 million to help secure the Airbus facility, according to local media reports.

The major parts of the planes assembled in Mobile — the wings, tail and fuselage — are made in Europe and come to Alabama via cargo ship from Hamburg, Germany.

The Mobile complex has drawn related businesses nearby, such as Panasonic Avionics, aircraft seating maker Zodiac Aerospace, technology firm Thales and aircraft landing gear maker Messier-Buggati-Dowty.

Before a fully-assembled plane is delivered to an airline, its cabin is furnished and inspected, followed by flight testing. Finally comes a transfer of title at the Airbus delivery center.

The first jet to roll off the Mobile assembly line was delivered to JetBlue a year ago. Last December, Delta took delivery of its first plane from the facility, an A321. Other planes made at the plant go to Spirit and American Airlines.

The goal is for the plant to produce four aircraft a month by the end of this year, and it’s designed to be able to expand to eight aircraft a month. Meanwhile, there’s a nine-year backlog of orders.

Airbus also makes planes in the A320 series at plants in Hamburg, Toulouse and Tianjin, China.

‘On the world stage’

The opening of the Mobile plant prompted Airbus Americas president Barry Eccleston to draw comparisons to empires: “The sun never sets on Airbus,” he said. “We are always building an airplane somewhere around the globe.”

To Hudson, the county commissioner, it means “Mobile is on the world stage now.” 

About 600 people work at the facility, including roughly 360 Airbus employees, with the remainder working for suppliers at the site. The assembly plant joins two other Airbus operations in Mobile: an engineering center and a defense and space unit.

Mobile has other large employers such as military shipbuilder Austal with about 4,000 employees, according to Wayman, of the local chamber of commerce.

He said the Airbus plant has helped spur the local economy.

“Our restaurant scene has really taken off, our residential has really taken off. We’re bringing in people from outside this area who are moving to this area.”

Ron Marlow, a board member on the French-American Chamber of New Orleans, said even his city a 2.5 hour drive to the west could benefit from the Airbus facility by attracting suppliers for the plant.

“This is great for the whole region,” Marlow said.

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