Plant would be watershed event
June 29, 2012
...A few years back when Mobile, Ala., thought EADS would be chosen to build tankers for
the U.S. Air Force, economic development officials and politicians agreed that having an
aircraft assembly plant would change the future of Mobile and the surrounding region.
...The thinking was that an assembly plant in Mobile, at the center of an already active
aerospace region between east New Orleans and Northwest Florida, would be a
watershed event. True, the region already had space activities, unmanned aerial systems,
pilot training, aerial weapons development and more.
...But this would add an entirely new capability.
...That dream was dashed in February 2011 when the Air Force chose Boeing to build the
tankers in Washington. Mobile, a city that’s had its share of hard knocks, licked its wounds
but continued working behind the scenes. Reports popped up every few months about the
possibility Mobile was, in fact, still in the running for an Airbus aerospace plant.
...This week in the most tantalizing story of all, the New York Times reported that Europe’s
Airbus, which for a long time said it needed to establish a foothold in the United States,
would build its first airliner assembly plant in Mobile. It said an announcement would be
made “as early as Monday.”
...The Mobile Press-Register the same day reported Airbus president Fabrice Bregier
would be in Mobile Monday for a 10 a.m. announcement at the Mobile Convention Center
about a multimillion-dollar plant to assemble A320 jetliners. Bregier, who became head of
Airbus in June, had visited Mobile recently, according to the
Financial Times.
...Since the story broke, lips have been sealed.
...“Airbus is already a very highly valued member of the Mobile community, and we look
forward to a great long-term relationship,” said Win Hallett, president of the Mobile Area
Chamber of Commerce. “We'd love to have them grow their facilities here and certainly
hope they do so, but we've got nothing to announce yet.”
...Call it caution, call it burned too many times. In 2008 ground-breaking for the EADS
plant was just days away when the rug was pulled and a new competition ordered. In
February 2011 the Air Force opted for Boeing to build the tankers.
...Mobile has been left at the altar before. It was a finalist when Boeing was looking for a
location to build what at the time was called the “Dreamliner,” now called the 787 and now
being built in Washington state and South Carolina. Years before that, Mobile was chosen
as the site to build planes for an Indonesian company. That fell through because of
problems overseas.
...But if Mobile gets an Airbus plant, it would be a major economic development win for
Alabama’s port city. And it’s big enough that the ripples will be felt in distant areas. It will
draw suppliers and vendors into areas around Mobile, including Baldwin County, Ala., the
westernmost counties of Northwest Florida and Jackson County, Miss.
...Mobile officials know what a big enough project can do. The decision of Mercedes-Benz
to build a plant in Vance, Ala., near Tuscaloosa, brought in more auto builders as well as
a supplier network. They can’t help but picture the same thing with an Airbus plant.
...Airbus already has an engineering facility that employs some 200 people at Brookley
Aeroplex, doing interior design work for the A330, A380, and A350. There’s also an EADS
facility at Mobile Regional Airport, which does work on military aircraft. EADS also has an
American Eurocopter facility in Columbus, Miss.
...EADS has been talking for some time about the need to establish a manufacturing plant
in the United States. Sales of narrow-aisle airliners are booming. American Airlines
ordered 260 A320s last year. Airbus makes more of the 150-seat plane than any of its
other planes, according to the Associated Press.
...But it's well behind Boeing in the U.S. market. An aircraft stamped “made in the U.S.A.”
might make a big difference. Right now, Airbus builds A320s in Toulouse, France,
Hamburg, Germany, and Tianjin, China.
...Robert Ingram, economic director for nearby Baldwin County, congratulated his
counterpart and frequent partners in Mobile. He told the
Mobile Press Register that
Airbus’ decision was great news, and that he was proud of Mobile’s leaders “for their
never-say-die attitude.”
...The same congratulatory tone came from further to the west.
...“The location of an Airbus manufacturing facility in Mobile would be a significant
validation of our collective efforts to promote the unique aviation and aerospace assets of
the Gulf Coast,” said Don Kirkman, president of Florida’s Great Northwest, which
promotes a 16-county region.
...“Florida’s Great Northwest has been a partner in the four-state Aerospace Alliance
because of our common interests in branding the Gulf Coast as one of the world’s leading
aviation centers. All four states stand to benefit tremendously from the Airbus investment,
both directly from new supplier locations, and indirectly from the additional awareness and
publicity that this announcement will bring to our region,” Kirkman said.
In the extreme western portion of the aerospace corridor, the folks involved in activities at
Stennis Space Center also see the benefit of having an aircraft assembly plant on the
Gulf Coast.
...“The entire northern Gulf region will benefit from this development, including the Stennis
Space Center and the New Orleans region,” said Charles Beasley, president and CEO of
the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology.
...One man who knows what Mercedes-Benz did in Alabama sees a huge impact from an
Airbus plant in Mobile. Neal Wade was an economic development official in Alabama and
worked to bring in Mercedes. He now heads up the Aerospace Alliance and is economic
development chief in Bay County, Fla.
...“This is an announcement the entire region has been supporting because of the
tremendous economic impact having giant jets built in Mobile will have on the entire Gulf
Coast region. This will firmly establish the Gulf Coast as the fourth largest aerospace
corridor in the world,” he said.
...The list of aerospace companies that operate in the Gulf Coast reads like a who’s who
of the aerospace industry. It includes Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and
General Dynamics. There are also numerous aerospace companies with foreign roots
that operate here, including the UK’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Finmeccanica.
...There are three major aerospace activities in the Gulf Coast region. Space activities are
centered in the Stennis-Michoud area. At Stennis Space Center, Miss., rocket engines
that will be used in NASA’s Space Launch System are assembled and tested. Commercial
companies are also testing engines at the sprawling test site. Michoud Assembly Facility,
some 40 miles away, builds the Orion crew vehicle and will be building the core stage of
the SLS.
...Military aviation activities occur throughout the region, but the heaviest concentration is
in Northwest Florida, where the Navy trains aviators at Naval Air Station Pensacola and
NAS Whiting Field. Nearby Eglin Air Force Base is home of the F-35 training center, and it’
s also where the Air Force spends $756 million a year on aerial weapons R&D. Further to
the east, Tyndall Air Force Base trains F-22 Raptor pilots.
...Now the addition of a wide-body assembly plant in Mobile cements the central part of
the Gulf Coast as a key player in aircraft assembly. Forty miles away from Mobile in Moss
Point, Miss., Northrop Grumman builds the central fuselage of all variants of the Global
Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, and does final integration work on the Fire Scout
unmanned helicopter.
...The announcement will give participants at next month's Farnborough International Air
Show a decidedly festive tilt. The four-state Aerospace Alliance, which promotes
aerospace activities in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, will be holding a reception
across at Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace in central London July 8. It expects more
than 450 participants.
...“This is our third year as the Aerospace Alliance, hosting an opening reception,” said
the Alliance’s Jason Dean. Based on responses to invitations, “it promises to be the
biggest and most high level.”
...The governors of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi will be there, as will the economic
development chief from Louisiana. Congressional members will also be at the event, as
well as the CEOs of major international aerospace companies, said Dean.
...Dean said the idea is to provide a two-hour networking opportunity for the economic
development officials from all four states. He said that participants in past receptions said
they met people they had never met before, and some led to site visits.
...“It’s a microcosm of the whole purpose of the air show,” said Dean.
While the Gulf Coast was excited about the prospect of an aircraft plant in Mobile, Airbus
competitor Boeing was anything but happy. The Chicago-based company released a
statement Friday saying that no matter how many jobs might be created at a U.S. Airbus
plant, it accused Airbus of killing U.S. jobs through illegal subsidies. Boeing and EADS
have been have a long-running legal fight before the World Trade Organization over
government subsidies.
...Ironically, Boeing earlier this year announced it was closing its plant in Wichita, Kan.,
which had thought it would be involved in the tanker project.
- David Tortorano, GCAC,
6/29/12


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