Taking the stage with Airbus executive Daryl Taylor, student trainee Kennedy Brown speaks at a May 9, 2022, event announcing a new Airbus assembly line will be built in Mobile. At right are other students who have participated in the FlightPath9 training program in Mobile.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com
Airbus executives confirmed Monday that it will raise a third aircraft assembly line in Mobile over the next few years, but there’s more: 1,000 new jobs on the new line, with new training programs operated by Bishop State Community College and Baldwin County public schools helping to meet the demand for skilled employees.
A top company official also said that despite recent signals from Pentagon officials, he thinks Airbus will get a shot at an Air Force tanker contract that could mean a fourth assembly line for the Port City.
The news about a new assembly line began to break on Friday, as Airbus announced quarterly earnings and revealed plans to boost production of its A320 family well beyond pre-pandemic levels. It wants its suppliers to be ready to help it put out 75 of the jetliners per month by 2025, it said.
Airbus assembles A320-family jets at four locations around the world, and company statements said the ramp-up would involve some expansion in Mobile. Taking questions on an earnings call, Faury clarified that this would mean a new Final Assembly Line (FAL) in Mobile, alongside the one that already assembles A320 family jets and a newer one for the smaller A220 family.
Jeff Knittel, Airbus Americas Chairman and CEO, spelled it out on Monday, in a ceremony held in the brand-new Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center on Bishop State Community College’s campus off Broad Street.
“The next step in our journey is an increase in the rate of production at Airbus for our single-aisle family … We have globally decided that we’re going to increase the rate of our 320 family to 75 airplanes,” said Knittel. “And because of that, we will build an additional Final Assembly Line right here in Mobile.”
Knittel projected a groundbreaking for the new FAL in the first quarter of 2023, with production to start in early 2025. “It’s driven by the demand of our customers and the growing demand right here in the U.S.,” he said.
An Airbus spokesman said the company has not yet released any estimate of how much it will invest to build the new FAL.
“Now, not only will it be a Final Assembly Line, but we’ll add a new paint shop and we’ll have major modifications to our existing hangar,” Knittel said. “But most importantly, to you and others, we will hire an additional 1,000 employees. And our plan is to continue to do that with a diverse population just like we have here at Bishop State. So we look forward to you graduating and helping us succeed.”
As Knittel and others spoke, they were flanked by dozens of area high school students who’ve been in Airbus’ FlightPath9, an afterschool training program that prepares students to go into a “Fast Track” employee training program. The expectation appears to be that at least some of the FlightPath9 students will learn additional skills at the new Bishop State facility. There, said interim Bishop State President Lawrence Brandenburg, they and others will receive “industry-approved training through Airbus.”
Brandyburg described the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center as a state of the art facility that will be the only one of its kind in the region. It will feature “new groundbreaking programs that will train students for high-tech careers in electronics, engineering, computer-aided drafting and design, mechatronics, robotics, and much more.”
Knittel and others expressed personal enthusiasm. Knittel said that starting higher education with a year at a community college had been a pivotal moment in shaping his career path. Daryl Taylor, Airbus FAL USA Vice President and General Manager, said much the same of an early training program he experienced.
“As a former apprentice, I know the impact serving as an apprentice had on my career,” he said.
“The way forward for you is being paved in a way that’s never happened,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. Other speakers included Baldwin County Commission Chair Jeb Ball, who said that a new career tech school in Loxley will prepare Baldwin County High School students “to join the workforce as soon as they graduate” in trades such as “construction sciences, healthcare sciences as well as aerospace studies.”
Other speakers included Gov. Kay Ivey and Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson. A common theme was the teamwork of state and local elected officials.
While Airbus is free to chart its own path on the civilian side of the industry, its chances of producing tankers for the U.S. Air Force depend largely on Pentagon decision-makers.
A decade ago, Boeing and Airbus predecessor EADS went toe-to-toe for a big U.S. Air Force tanker deal known as the KC-X contract. A so-called KC-Y contract has been anticipated as a rematch; and in February Airbus described its plan to build a new assembly line in Mobile if it wins the deal.
The latest news on that front is that in late March, a top Pentagon official said the competition might not happen, because the Air Force might just keep buying Boeing’s KC-46, winner of the previous competition.
“I love competition. I’m all for it. It’s the best tool have to reduce costs. But we actually have to have a demand for the other aircraft that’s being offered,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, according to Breaking Defense.
“And I’m trying to be as transparent and honest about this as I can be. It is not as certain as it was a year ago, let’s say, that we’re going to do a competition,” Kendall said, according to Breaking Defense. “And I don’t want people to have a mis-impression about that. [But] we have not made a final decision yet.”
Kendall basically said that the closer the Air Force gets to nailing down exactly what it wants, the more it looks like more of the same. “As we look for requirements, look further out, the requirements start to look like a modified KC-46 more than they do a completely new design,” Kendall said, according to Aviation Week.
That sat poorly with U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl, among others whose districts would benefit from Airbus’s tanker partnership with Lockheed Martin, according to Breaking Defense and other outlets. They’ve pointed out that Boeing’s effort to get the KC-46 into service has been plagued by a seemingly endless series of manufacturing and design problems, some of which have had massive price tags.
On Monday, Knittel said he feels confident the competition will take place. “I do. We’re moving forward,” he said.
“A campaign like this has ups and downs, and different views,” he said. “We fundamentally believe we have the right airplane for our warfighters going forward.”
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