Airbus’ next move: Made in the USA?

A320 production line_560.jpgThe reports that Airbus on Monday will open an A320 factory in Mobile, Alabama remain unconfirmed, but they are getting pretty close to official.

It’s not just anonymous sources talking to the New York Times in Paris.

The Mobile Register has talked to employees at the Airbus engineering center, and they have been told rather intriguingly that they are not allowed to comment “because no official announcement has been made”.

The Mobile newspaper also quotes local economic development official George Freeland saying in somewhat contradictory terms: “We’ve understood for some time that the Airbus announcement concerning its intention to build commercial liners in Mobile is imminent.”

Knowing something is “imminent” for “some time” is a strange way to put things, but there could be valid reasons. Airbus has been in Alabama’s sights for several years, but the intensity of the rhetoric picked up noticeably earlier this year. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley declared in February that he was in negotiations with Airbus in nearby New Orleans, and promised that they “were going to get some good results”.

It’s not clear if the French presidential election delayed Airbus’ decision, or indeed if any decision had been made prior to the election. As of late April an Airbus official assured this blogger that there was still “no business case” for opening a fourth A320 final assembly line anywhere, adding to existing lines in Toulouse, Hamburg and Tianjin.

Perhaps, Airbus’ sums have changed.

If Airbus moves to Mobile, it will be the clearest sign yet that the A320 output is growing to 60 aircraft per month by the end of the decade. As Flightglobal reported last year: “Industry analyst consensus, as well as prevailing wisdom inside Boeing, concludes the European airframer cannot achieve 60 A320s a month without major expansion of its Toulouse, Hamburg or Tianjin, China lines. This would open the door to a US-based final assembly line in Mobile, Alabama, current site of an Airbus engineering centre, late in the decade to meet the replacement demand in North America.”

It would also mean a new era in commercial aircraft manufacturing in the US. Boeing has been the only company assembling large commercial aircraft on US soil since acquiring McDonnell Douglas in 1997, while Lockheed stopped building L-1011s in 1984.

It’s too late for Airbus to use Mobile as political leverage in a bid to win a contract to deliver A330 tankers to the US Air Force. However, a commitment by Airbus to open a final assembly line and attract a regional aerospace cluster could make things a bit awkward for the US side of the dispute before the World Trade Organization. It would also move A320neo assembly closer to its US customers, which for the first time includes American Airlines.