Airbus breaks ground in Alabama for A320 line

The Boeing Co.’s biggest rival took a big step Monday toward building airplanes in the United States, breaking ground on a manufacturing facility in Alabama.

You “ain’t seen nothing yet,” said Tom Enders, CEO of EADS.

Enders spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Airbus A320 final assembly line in Mobile, Ala. EADS is the parent company of Toulouse, France-based Airbus. The event was webcast live.

Mobile has long been the focus of an EADS push to begin manufacturing in the United States. The Gulf Coast town was to be the manufacturing site for A330-based aerial-refueling tankers — had the company won a hard-fought battle to supply the U.S. Air Force. But Boeing was awarded the contract in 2011 and will assemble 767-based tankers in Everett.

“The support we’ve been getting over here … is second to none,” Enders said.

Political and company leaders alike recognized the lengthy effort to bring jet manufacturing to Alabama. Mobile Mayor Sam Jones said Airbus and EADS were “consistently supportive” of doing something in Mobile.

Airbus already has an engineering center which employs 200 people in Mobile. The $600 million A320 final assembly line will employ 1,000 when it reaches full production of about four aircraft per month.

“In about two years we will start assembling the first airplane here in Mobile,” said Fabrice Brégier, president of Airbus.

Airbus intends to deliver the first A320 assembled in Mobile to JetBlue in 2016. The Alabama site will make Airbus the only jet manufacturer to have final assembly sites on three continents: Asia, Europe and North America.

“Thanks to Mobile, the sun will never set on Airbus,” Brégier said.

The Mobile site gives Airbus a foot in the door in the U.S., a point emphasized in a video on Airbus’ website. Brégier believes being closer to American customers will present a “huge potential” for capturing 50 percent of the jet market in the United States.

Airbus sales chief John Leahy said he expects “substantial orders” from U.S. carriers for the A320 new engine option, or A320neo. Leahy plans to visit several U.S. customers this week.

“With a final assembly line here that lets us become a U.S. manufacturer of aircraft with U.S. jobs,” he said.

The A320 site in Mobile presents not only a challenge for Boeing but also for the Puget Sound region, which has seen Boeing select another southern state, South Carolina, as home to a second 787 final assembly line. Mobile was a competitor in 2003 for the original 787 assembly line, which Everett won.

“To say that (the South) isn’t a threat would be naive,” said John Monroe, chief operating officer for Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

In the short-term, Monroe isn’t worried that local suppliers will uproot and move to Mobile. Most local aerospace companies here still do more business with Boeing, which builds the 737, 747, 767, 777 and 787 in the region, and wouldn’t gain from relocating to the South.

Officials in Alabama, however, believe the A320 facility in Mobile is just the beginning for the region.

“It isn’t just about building a plane or boosting our economy,” Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said. “This facility will mean a brighter future.”

Bloomberg News contributed to this report. Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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