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Taking aim at Boeing, Airbus opens first US plant


Mobile (US): European jetmaker Airbus has inaugurated its first US plant in a move to wrest away a chunk of rival Boeing’s domination of the domestic aircraft market, including lucrative Pentagon contracts.

Airbus plans to assemble 40-50 of its single-aisle A320 family every year beginning in 2018 from the plant, built on the site of a World War II bomber support base in Mobile, Alabama.

Decking out the location with US flags, the European industrial giant hopes the “Made In America” stamp on its aircraft will help carve a larger chunk from Boeing’s dominance of the North American market for passenger aircraft.

“The message is simply, we like this market, we like to be in America. We are here and we are here to stay. We are an American company now,” said Thomas Enders yesterday, chief executive of parent Airbus Group yesterday.

With loudspeakers blasting out the 1974 rock anthem “Sweet Home Alabama” at yesterday’s ceremony, Governor Robert Bentley called it “a great day for Mobile and all the state of Alabama.”

Three years ago, Airbus had a 20 per cent share of the US market, against 80 per cent for Boeing. Since announcing the Mobile plant, its market share has doubled to 40 per cent.

The company, based just outside Toulouse, France, is focused on the estimated 5,000 new passenger planes expected to be ordered in North America over the next 20 years.

But another important aim of the new facility is greater access to the huge US defense budget. Airbus’s identity as a foreign maker helped undermine its fight in 2011 against Boeing for a USD 30 billion Pentagon contract for aerial refuelling tankers.

The USD 600 million production line is only Airbus’s second one outside Europe — the first is in Tianjin, China.

Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier called the inauguration “a historic day.”

“While Airbus has deep European roots, we have always seen ourselves as citizens of the world,” he said.

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

The company expects the new plant, which will employ 1,000 workers in the final assembly of the aircraft, to help reduce production costs and make them more competitive price-wise.

Alabama has one of the lowest minimum wages in the United States — USD 7.25 per hour — and employment benefits are about 30 percent less expensive than in Europe.

In addition, by producing in the United States, Airbus will reduce risks tied to the shifting US-euro exchange rate.

The Mobile plant will assemble single-aisle A319, A320 and A321 jets, its best-selling aircraft first launched in 1988.

Starting in 2017, it will also assemble the A320 Neo, a new version with a more fuel-efficient engine.

The first aircraft is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in early 2016, destined for US carriers JetBlue and American Airlines.

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