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Alabama economic development community looks to attract Airbus suppliers

MOBILE, Alabama – Airbus plans to begin manufacturing its A320 family of passenger jets in Alabama in 2015, and the state’s economic development officials have mobilized to help the aviation giant and Airbus suppliers experience a smooth take-off.

Alabama officials will work with Airbus to recruit and select its 1,000-strong workforce and on training programs to prepare those workers for duties on the company’s final assembly line at  Mobile Brookley Aeroplex.

Officials also are reaching out to Airbus suppliers that are expected to follow the company to Alabama. Landing a network of companies providing parts, components and services to Airbus would represent a second triumph for the state’s economic developers, who have targeted the aviation and aerospace industries for growth.

Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said state officials are working closely with Airbus to understand its supply-chain plans for the Mobile plant. Top state officials, including Gov. Robert Bentley, have traveled to Europe for talks with Airbus suppliers, and a supplier support network has been established to highlight Alabama’s advantages so an infrastructure can be created.

“This is a long-term strategy,” Canfield said. “We expect to be involved in the growth of the Airbus supply chain for the next two years, or even longer.”

In Airbus, Canfield sees parallels with Mercedes-Benz, which announced plans to build an Alabama manufacturing plant in 1993 and produced its first vehicle four years later. The early years brought a burst of hiring and an initial wave of suppliers. As the German automaker has expanded production, its footprint has grown.

What’s resulted is an ever-expanding network of parts makers around the state, pumping billions of dollars into the economy and creating thousands of manufacturing jobs over the years.

“We believe the same will hold true for Airbus,” Canfield said.

Airbus’ decision to assemble jet liners in Alabama dramatically expands the company’s presence in the state. Airbus operates an engineering center with 220 workers at Brookley that focuses on its A350 XWB, A380 and other planes. There also is an Airbus Military NA maintenance, repair and overhaul center for U.S. Coast Guard aircraft at the Mobile Regional Airport.

The Airbus assembly operation will provide a significant boost to Alabama’s already vibrant aerospace sector, which has more than 300 companies with a combined 83,000 employees, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce. The sector’s annual payroll exceeds $3 billion.

The largest aerospace company in Alabama is Boeing, Airbus’ chief rival in the global passenger jet business. Boeing has had a presence in Alabama for more than 50 years and today supports U.S. defense and space programs through operations in Huntsville. Boeing, a major employer there, said late last year it plans to consolidate several of its Huntsville locations in a new office complex called Redstone Gateway.

“In the aerospace business, two of the most important players are Airbus and Boeing. For both of them to have substantial operations in Alabama is impressive,” Canfield said. “Their activities in the state, from missile defense to space systems and, soon, commercial aircraft, put Alabama at the forefront of the U.S. aerospace industry.”

The Airbus project will provide a massive economic boost to the Mobile area, with work on the $600 million facility creating an estimated 3,200 construction jobs over two years. The total number of direct and indirect jobs tied to the Airbus manufacturing facility is expected to approach 5,000.

Supplier activity is just getting started. The first, Safran Engineering Services, has announced plans to set up an operation at Brookley, with a workforce of 50.

While wooing additional Airbus suppliers, Alabama economic developers can point to the logistical advantages that attracted Airbus to Brookley. The former Air Force base boasts an airfield with a 9,600-foot runway and another stretching 7,800 feet. The site is adjacent to the Port of Mobile and just minutes from two major interstates and railroad connections.

When Airbus announced its plans for the Alabama plant at a July 2, 2012, rally in the city, Fabrice Brégier, the company’s president and CEO, put it this way: “Alabama was an easy choice.”

For Brégier and Airbus, the decision to make aircraft in Alabama reflects a strategic goal that calls for the company to become an even stronger player in the United States.

The Alabama manufacturing facility will produce the industry-leading family of A319, A320 and A321 aircraft. Construction is scheduled to start in the summer of 2013. The first assembly operations will begin in 2015, with a customer taking the first delivery at Brookley the next year. Starting in 2018, Airbus expects its Alabama workforce to be turning out 40 to 50 aircraft per year.

Ed Castile, director of AIDT, the state’s job training agency and a division of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said the competition for Airbus suppliers will be intense. Other states in the Gulf Coast region will pursue the projects aggressively.

Alabama officials have taken the offensive by sending high-ranking delegations to the Farnborough International Airshow near London and to an aviation forum in Germany. At the forum in Hamburg, Canfield said the delegation met with nine companies interested in locating in Alabama and many others evaluating their options.

They also have established a supplier support network that serves as a “one-stop shop” to help companies looking at Alabama gain insight into workforce recruitment, training programs, permitting and other issues. Partners in this effort are the PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, the Baldwin County Economic Alliance and the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“There are companies that need to be near that final assembly line. They could be in Florida, or they could be in Mississippi, so we have our work cut out for us,” Castile said. “We won’t win every supplier, but we will win a lot,” Castile said.

PROJECT: Final assembly line for A320 family of aircraft
LOCATION: Brookley Aeroplex in Mobile
INVESTMENT: $600 million
WORKFORCE: Up to 1,000
PRODUCTION: 40-50 passengers jets annually starting in 2018

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Alabama workforce training programs gearing up for Airbus

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