MOBILE, Alabama – The hometown of Mobile Brookley Aeroplex, the site of a future Airbus passenger jet production facility, shares a lot in common with another city that has a major Airbus presence – Hamburg, Germany.
Both Mobile and the much larger Hamburg are home to bustling port complexes that have long tied the two cities to the global economy and international trade, supporting a wide variety of maritime activities. The Alabama city and the German metropolis also stand as major transportation hubs and industrial centers.
Bill Sisson, the former executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, which operates Brookley, sees parallels between the cities when it comes to the evolution of their economies. Sisson, who this summer became president of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, has traveled to Hamburg to tour the massive Airbus production facility that employs 15,000 people.
“Hamburg has a strong maritime and shipbuilding business, and the port has been incredibly important to Hamburg, just as its port has been to Mobile,” he said. “In Hamburg, you also have seen an evolution to its economy through aviation and high tech, and you’re seeing that in Mobile.”
The cities stand nearly 4,800 miles apart, but they are linked by Airbus, the Toulouse, France-based maker of passenger jets. Airbus in April officially began construction on a final assembly line at Mobile Brookley Aeroplex, where it will produce its best-selling A320 family of single-aisle jetliners, just as it does in Hamburg.
To ensure a smooth start up, Aviation Week reported that Airbus plans to make the Alabama facility a “carbon copy” of its A320 operation in Hamburg, mirroring the process it used to set up an A320 factory in Tianjin, China. Airbus officials have directly compared the Alabama operation to the one in China, which also is designed to produce four aircraft a month.
Airbus will invest $600 million and employ as many as 1,000 people at its Brookley production facility, where assembly will begin in 2015, followed by the first customer delivery of a Made-in-Alabama aircraft in 2016. (Watch a video of Airbus President Fabrice Bregier talking about the Alabama plant.)
Airbus already operates an engineering center with 220 employees at Brookley, a former U.S. Air Force base with a 9,600-foot runway. A corporate sibling, Airbus Military N.A., operates a maintenance, repair and overhaul center at Mobile Regional Airport for aircraft used by the U.S. Coast Guard and others.
The Airbus facility in Hamburg, meanwhile, is a massive economic engine. It serves as Airbus’ headquarters in Germany and plays an essential role in the development and engineering of all the company’s aircraft. The facility produces complete fuselage sections for the giant A380 jetliner, and workers there fit A320 and A380 aircraft with their cabin interiors and paint planes for final delivery. In addition, Hamburg manufactures and equips the forward and rear fuselage sections of the company’s A330 and A350 XWB aircraft.
Hamburg – Germany’s second largest city, with a population of 1.8 million – has an aviation tradition stretching more than a century. Aviation pioneers there were attempting to fly home-made aircraft there as early as 1909, and the foundation stone for the first airship hangar was laid there two years later, according to the Aviation Cluster Hamburg Metropolitan Region Association.
Large-scale aircraft manufacturing began in Hamburg during the 1930s with the establishment of Hamburger Flugzeugbau GmbH, which eventually became part of Daimler Benz Aerospace and later Airbus. “The birth of Airbus brought with it a boom in the industry,” the association says.
In the 1950s, the airline Lufthansa set up its technical base in Hamburg; today, Lufthansa Technik is a global market leader in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of commercial aircraft and engines. The Aviation Cluster says the Hamburg region is home to 300 suppliers, as well as technological and scientific institutions that focus on aviation. More than 40,000 technicians are employed by the region’s aviation industry, the association says.
Hamburg’s port on the Elbe River is Europe’s second busiest and often gets called Germany’s “Gateway to the World.” In 2011, the Port of Hamburg handled more than 132 million tons of cargo, according to its web site.
The Port of Mobile, adjacent to Airbus’ home at Brookley, is sometimes called a global deepwater gateway for Alabama. It’s the nation’s ninth busiest port, handling between 55 million and 65 million tons of cargo each year, according to the federal government estimates. Activities at the Port of Mobile and the Alabama State Port Authority have been estimated to have a $22 billion annual economic impact, according to the authority.
Airbus has said Brookley’s location adjacent to the seaport will enable it to deliver fully equipped aircraft sections from Europe on standard freight container ships. That will simplify the transportation of oversize aircraft components to the plant, eliminating the need for long trips over roadways, Sisson said.
“Brookley is located right next door to the port,” Sisson said.
Airbus also has said it will use Brookley’s road and rail connections to receive parts from U.S. suppliers at its Alabama final assembly line. CSX Railroad runs through Brookley and hubs with four other railroads at the seaport terminal. Interstate 10, a major east-west artery, stands two miles away, while Interstate 65, which runs north to Chicago, is just four miles away.
“Brookley’s logistics make it one of the region’s most marketable economic development assets,” Sisson said.
Besides the Airbus engineering center, Brookley is home to other aviation companies, including ST Aerospace, which repairs and refurbishes commercial jets, and Continental Motors, which makes piston engines for small aircraft.