One of the UK’s most prominent regional industry bodies has raised fresh fears that BAE Systems’ de­cision to sell its 20% stake in Airbus to EADS could starve the airframer’s UK operation of future investment.

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Bradley: Laments UK decline
Despite assurances from BAE, EADS and the government that the Airbus UK operations at Filton in Bristol and Broughton in north Wales will retain their status as centres of excellence for wing technology, Ross Bradley, chief executive of Farnborough Aerospace Consortium, says that, while there is no risk to immediate employment levels in the UK, “it is inevitable that the supply of the related technology for Airbus will migrate out of the country”. BAE’s decision, he says, is “another historic step in the decline of the UK’s commercial aerospace market”.

The UK government’s and industry’s failure to invest enough in developing and manufacturing large composite aerostructures in recent years is partly to blame, says Bradley. The effect is likely to be felt when Airbus decides how to split workshare when it launches its next big project, the replacement for the A320 family, early next decade. “In my view, there would be no incentive [for EADS] to invest in the UK for the A320 replacement. In the longer term, what would be the incentive for putting any new technologies in the UK? Without UK company ownership, it would be more likely that investment would go elsewhere.” A French- and German-owned company, he says, would tend “to put that technology in the country where it resides”.

But the warning from FAC – which represents aerospace manufacturers in the south of England and acts as a link between primes and the supply chain – has brought a robust response from Robin Southwell, chief executive of EADS in the UK. Bradley, he says, is “profoundly mistaken” in his assumption that Airbus investment in the UK, either directly into its operations or to the supply chain, will dry up. “We foresee no changes in the strategy, policy or implementation of procurement activity,” says Southwell. UK suppliers are selected on their merits as part of a centralised procurement operation; not in proportion to the BAE stake in Airbus. “We all know that so much of the [Airbus global] supply chain is populated by British engineering excellence – long may that continue,” he says.

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© Flight International

Airbus workshare has been allocated roughly in proportion to the stakes in Airbus held by the national “champions” and to create centres of excellence in the different countries. Many believe this policy, dating from the late 1960s, let the different units concentrate on what they were best at and gain the technological edge on US competitors in areas such as composite manufacturing, fly-by-wire flight controls, two-crew cockpits, cross-crew qualification and the “big twin” concept. During Airbus’s first decades, these operations tended to use local supply chains.

But since the creation of Airbus as an integrated company in 2001 – in which the newly formed EADS had an 80% stake – procurement has become much more transparent and global, and national entities have been encouraged to compete for contracts on new programmes. On the A380, for instance, Airbus Espana secured around 10% of workshare, despite the country’s state-owned investment arm holding just 5.5% of EADS. That was put down to the Spanish arm’s success in developing expertise in composites as non-traditional materials began to play an ever larger role in the construction of Airbus aircraft.

As more composites are used in wing design, this could affect the UK’s ability to retain its traditional competence in wing production. “We have an enviable capacity built up in wing design, but the manufacture of it could easily be done elsewhere,” says Bradley.

Airbus employs 7,000 at Broughton and 6,000 at Filton, and claims to support 45,000 direct and 95,000 indirect jobs in the UK.


Source: Flight International