Mobile's Airbus factory to add staff following United Airlines order
An APR News Feature
Mobile’s Airbus factory plans to start hiring again following United Airlines jet purchase A new aircraft order from United Airlines could be good news for the city of Mobile. The air carrier wants 70 Airbus A320s. Many of those aircraft will be built in the port city.
As COVID-19 numbers drop, air travel is on the rise. Aircraft plants are ramping up production to meet the demand for new planes. That’s good news at the Airbus plant in Mobile. That’s where many of the company’s A320 and A220 airplanes are assembled.
“The U.S. airlines appear to be in a relatively healthy condition, certainly on the domestic side and keen to re-enter into picking up their aircraft, especially out of Mobile. That’s the good news,” said Airbus Vice President Daryl Taylor.
He directs the company’s US assembly line in Mobile.
“We’re about two years behind where we were going to be, but now with requirements that are actually higher than pre-COVID by the middle of 2024. That’s the good news,” he said.
Airbus doesn’t give out production numbers for specific plants. Taylor said the four plants producing A 320s and A220s in Mobile, Germany, France and China have a current goal of building 45 of these passenger jets every month. In 2019, they were making 60 with plans to go up to 63. Now the goal is 64 by 2023 and 70 by the year after that. By 2025, the goal is a potential of 75 Airbus jets.
“That’s why we’re not in a position to say locally what that really means because there’s a lot of pieces moving in the industrial system in terms of how many of those aircraft will be picked up per month in Mobile. But what I would say is it certainly isn’t bad news for Mobile,” Taylor said.
Taylor said air travel is expected to keep increasing, particularly in the United States.
“Europe and the U.S. dropped off significantly, but the U.S. over the last three or four months has seen a significant re-energizing of the market and a recovery and I think we’ve gone from low 1.2 million, 1.3 million to closer to 2 million per day flying through and that’s primarily in the domestic market,” Taylor said.
The types of jets assembled in Mobile are in particular demand.
“What we’ve seen in Airbus in particular is certainly on the single-aisle, which is what we build here in Mobile, the 320, 321 family is that we didn’t see cancellations. We saw delays and now we see these delays coming back to be requested and rather than a slower ramp-up, we now see a steeper ramp-up,” Taylor said.
That’s a big change from a year ago. Taylor said that in early 2020, he saw a sign of how things had changed almost overnight when he came to work at Mobile’s Brookley complex.
“I think at Brookley one of the clear indicators at that time was American Airlines had up to 30 wide-body Boeing aircraft actually being stored down here on one of the runways and when you drove into work, it was quite a stark view of where we were in the industry,” Taylor said.
Airbus slowed production, but never laid off any Mobile employees. They did watch the industry carefully to see how the workforce, supply chain and demand were being affected by the Coronavirus.
“The great news is we got through 2020 without a reduction of workforce,” Taylor said. “So, we had reached right around 1,000 direct employees at the beginning of 2020. While we didn’t hire during 2020 except for a very few, very critical positions that we had to backfill, we also didn’t actively reduce workforce. This year, we plan to recruit about 150 employees here in Mobile. We’ll pass 1,100 active head counts here during 2021 and if you look at our total head count that’s onsite, when you add our suppliers, we outsource several of our work packages, logistics, maintenance and things like that, we’re probably closer to 1,350, 1,400 and I would expect that to be closer to 1,500 by the end of the year.”
During the pandemic, Airbus and other Mobile manufacturers worked with the Mobile Chamber of Commerce to determine how to deal with COVID-19.
“The aim of that activity was, one, to make sure that as a set of organizations we were really aligning on the best practices to keep our employees employed and safe and I think that was hugely beneficial,” Taylor said. “There were many best practices that I was able to pick up from my counterparts and understand how we bring those best practices into place and we ran that religiously throughout the year of 2020 and sort of reconvened it a little bit as we started to get back to the vaccination protocol.”
“One of the great things that came out of COVID is that there was more engagement and connectivity among our members than I have ever seen and so there were several different groups that sort of formed,” said Bill Sisson.
He’s president of the Mobile Chamber. He said about 18 CEOs of the region’s top manufacturers took part in the working group.
“They were really able to exchange a lot of great information, updating each other on what they were doing as far as policies, what their COVID cases looked like, if they had any great ideas on how to encourage their employees to get vaccinated, those kinds of things,” Sisson said.
Manufacturing is big in Mobile, more than twice the national level.
“I do know that they make up about 18% of our economy here, so we have a very strong manufacturing sector here. I think the average nationally is like 8% and we’re at 18% so there’s a lot of manufacturing here,” Sission said. “And, as I said they were continuing to operate. Now, they were challenged, we heard from all of them that they were challenged with employees who got COVID and had to be out, so they had absenteeism to deal with, but generally speaking, they’ve been able to navigate that as well.”
Those manufacturers also affect smaller suppliers that work with the plants. Airbus has about 20 suppliers. One of those is MAAS Aviation, a European-based company that now hires about 60 people in Mobile. They paint the finished Airbus jets.
“And so, we’ve been operating in Mobile since 2016,” said Geoffrey Myrick, who directs MAAS operations in the United States.
“We began with one paint shop and in 2017, we grew our capacity here at Brookley Field to include two additional paint shops and so right now today, we are currently operating three paint shops at Brookley Field,” Myrick said. “They are all dedicated to Airbus and since inception here, we have grown to not only paint the A320 family, but also now the A220 series of aircraft as well. We were really fortunate in that we were able to sustain our headcount, our staffing levels throughout the course of the pandemic. So, there was a combination of scheduling management and working with the team members here to make sure that we could keep the staff count level throughout the course of the pandemic, because we knew that despite the lowest of the lows last year that the workload was going to come back. The industry was going to recover and thankfully, now, we’re seeing good signs of that.”
Myrick said the United airlines order of new Airbus passenger jet is one of those good signs for Mobile.
“The big aircraft order announcement, which includes Airbus aircraft, from United Airlines,” Myrick said. “That type of news is very exciting for us and I’m sure all of the others in our industry as well. So, I think anytime they’re finding success, we hope to be able to expand our partnership with them to help us as well as to help Airbus."
Sisson said the order shows that no one knows when things will be completely back to pre-pandemic levels. But, the news appears to be improving for Airbus and Mobile.
“They ordered 70 Airbus A321 neo aircraft and a significant number of those will be manufactured in Mobile,” Sisson said. “So that’s good news and the 320 just continues to get thousands of orders and even though there’s some question marks about when the airlines will get back to where they were pre-COVID there’s a lot of pent-up demand for the products that Airbus is assembling here in Mobile.”
Taylor said he’s looking forward to seeing more Airbus aircraft roll off the line in Mobile.
“We’re excited to see people flying again and we’re very proud that we were able to get through the first 18 months of COVID without any forced layoffs, forced redundancies and to maintain an active workforce that’s engaged. We’re even more excited that we’re able to add some headcount right now and we’re delighted to see aircraft leaving our premises and being utilized by our customers,” said Taylor.
Editor's note: Guy Busby was part of Alabama Public Radio’s documentary on the lingering impact of the BP Oil spill. That program just won the National Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.