PARIS – With Alabama emerging as the next hub of passenger jet assembly, officials from cities as different as Birmingham and Enterprise traveled to this week’s Paris Air Show to position their communities for potential growth in the aerospace sector.
Steve Pelham, chief of staff to Alabama Lt. Governor Kay Ivey, remembers the arc of growth for the state’s auto industry, which was essentially non-existent 20 years ago. In 2015, Alabama three automakers are poised to produce a record 1 million-plus vehicles, making the state a production powerhouse in the global industry.
“We’re headed in that same direction with the aerospace industry, not only with Airbus but also with Boeing and the continued growth of Fort Rucker and the important role it plays,” Pelham said. “You mix all that up, and Alabama is the place to be if you are in the aerospace business.”
Mobile is starting to feel the halo effects of Airbus’ decision to locate its first North American aircraft assembly line in Alabama. During the air show, three aerospace companies announced they planned to establish facilities at Mobile Aeroplex, the home of Airbus’ new $600 million A320 family production center.
One of the projects involves Ireland-based MASS Aviation, which is teaming with Mobile Airport Authority (MAA), the operator of the Aeroplex, to open a $39 million paint hangar at the industrial park. MASS Aviation is aiming its services at commercial jets being re-painted as part of an overhaul.
In an interview in Paris, Roger Wehner, the MAA’s executive director, said the MASS Aviation paint shop project represents more than a year of recruitment work. It’s significant because it adds a new dimension to the Aeroplex skill set.
“It gives us a capability that can not only make our existing industry thrive but also attract new industry because we have this capability on the property,” Wehner said. “That’s how you redevelop a place with new capital investment.”
FLIGHT PLAN FOR GROWTH
Other Alabama cities want to take advantage of an Airbus spillover effect.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell made his first trip to an international air show last year at Farnborough This year, the city aligned with the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA), the metro area’s top economic development agency, to make the trip to Paris. The BBA orchestrated meetings with seven aerospace companies on Monday alone.
“I wanted to be able to put Birmingham in a spotlight as a place where support organizations for Airbus and other aerospace companies could come and take a look,” Bell said. “This year, in Paris, it has really been beyond my expectations in terms of the people we have met and the opportunities that are presenting themselves.
“We’ve talked to a lot of people, and hopefully, we see the fruits of those conversations in the very near future,” he added.
Bell said the vacant Kaiser Aircraft facility at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport has been the centerpiece of the city’s marketing efforts at the air show. “The Kaiser facility is ideal for us because it was designed for air logistics and to service planes,” he said. “It can be used in a number of ways to support the aerospace industry. ”
The city of Enterprise, population 27,000, stands 180 miles southeast of Alabama’s largest metro area, but officials there harbor the same ambitions for aerospace growth. Enterprise stands in the middle of the Wiregrass aerospace cluster, which is based around Fort Rucker, the U.S. Army Aviation training center for helicopter pilots since 1955.
Mayor Kenneth Boswell is an air show pro, having attended the event at least four times. He said recruiters in the Wiregrass began targeting Airbus component manufacturers more than three years ago. During the first two days of the air show, he said the Wiregrass recruiting group met with Airbus and around 10 other companies.
Boswell’s pitch includes the area’s experienced workforce and longstanding training programs offered by the Alabama Aviation Center, a unit of Enterprise State Community College.
“One of the things that helps us is that we have a large number of aviation-trained people who are ready to go to work,” he said. “When you sit down with suppliers or with manufacturers, they want to know that. They have comfort knowing they can draw from that workforce.”