Politics, economics and optics are usually cited by Airbus officials to justify opening a $600 million factory in Mobile, Alabama, and no doubt each played at least a minor role in the decision.

But the fundamental reason that four A320 family aircraft will be rolling off a US assembly line each month may be more simple: because Airbus can.

An A320 includes a forward fuselage built in France, an aft fuselage and vertical tails made in Germany, wings from the UK, and horizontal tails produced in Spain. All of those pieces are already assembled on separate lines in China, France and Germany.

Functionally it is no stretch to plant a new A320 family assembly hall on the banks of a south Alabama estuary. Neither is there great risk of creating too much manufacturing capacity. Global A320 family production rates are already set to rise to 50 per month in the first quarter of 2017. Airbus executives also may announce yet another escalation by the end of this year.

In “hard” economic terms, however, the move may seem more trouble than it’s worth. Although Airbus points to the favourable economics of producing aircraft in US dollars and lower labour costs, it remains unclear if these offset the higher shipping costs and reduced economies of scale. It is unlikely the Airbus plant by itself will generate a wave of new orders from North American airlines, many of whom are already operators of the European-built jets.

If “because Airbus can” leads to an unsatisfying answer, however, perhaps a better justification for the Mobile factory is rather this: “because Boeing can’t”.

Of course, opening a site in Alabama is certainly within Boeing’s corporate capacity. Its defence and space division already operates a significant production and engineering site in Huntsville. And 787s are also being built in North Charleston, South Carolina.

But would Boeing ever export commercial aircraft final assembly overseas? Boeing has strong industrial partnerships with Japan, and to a lesser degree Italy, at the major assembly level. But the company has never produced its jets anywhere outside of US soil, nor apparently even seriously considered such a move.

In a globalised age, Airbus can wield its exportable final assembly process as a secret weapon of soft power. In a single move, Airbus threatens Boeing’s sense that it owns title to the “Made in America” sticker – which, for American customers, is not nothing – and moves closer to a current and future growth market for its most successful product.

Source: Flight International