C'est la grosse rumeur du soir
PARIS — Airbus, the European plane maker, plans to build its first assembly line in the United States in Mobile, Ala., in an aggressive foray into the world’s largest market for single-aisle airplanes, people with knowledge of the plan said on Wednesday.
The plan calls for an investment of several hundred million dollars in a plant on Boeing’s home turf that could eventually assemble dozens of Airbus’s popular 150-seat A320 jets each year. Details are expected to be announced as early as Monday, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan was still confidential.
In taking the plunge into the United States, Airbus is betting that American airlines, many of which have large fleets of aging jets, will be enticed to consider an A320 that was “made in America” over Boeing’s competing 737. By assembling the planes with nonunion American workers, and in using dollars, Airbus also stands to reduce production costs.
Globally, Airbus and Boeing split the market for single-aisle planes fairly evenly. But in the United States, Airbus holds a 20 percent share.
North America is the biggest market for single-aisle planes. Airbus has forecast that nearly 70 percent of new jet sales worldwide over the next 20 years — 19,200 aircraft worth $1.4 trillion by 2030 — will be of this type. Forty percent of those planes are expected to replace aging, less fuel-efficient aircraft.
But the move to open an American factory could raise eyebrows in European capitals and among labor unions — particularly in France, where the new Socialist government of President François Hollande has said it will seek to punish companies that move jobs overseas with tax penalties and with the withdrawal of certain state subsidies. Airbus opened its first non-European assembly line in China four years ago.
Stefan Schaffrath, a spokesman for Airbus in Toulouse, France, said Wednesday that the company had “nothing to announce at this point.”
But Fabrice Brégier, the chief executive of Airbus, was quoted in a Spanish newspaper interview published on Wednesday as saying that an American assembly line was “part of a stream of ideas in our international development.”
“We are studying what we have to do to be close to our customers,” Mr. Brégier told the newspaper, El Economista. “The U.S. is a major market, and we are studying what options would increase our market share there.”
It was not immediately clear when Airbus expected the plant to open or how many planes it would initially produce. Its plant in Tianjin, China, assembles three planes a month, 8 percent of Airbus’s global output of single-aisle planes.
An agreement to build an assembly line in Mobile would be the culmination of a seven-year on-again, off-again courtship between Alabama officials and Airbus’s parent company, European Aeronautic Defense and Space.
As long ago as 2005, EADS, which already has an engineering site in Mobile, proposed building a $600 million assembly line for its larger A330 aircraft as part of a bid for a $35 billion United States Air Force contract for aerial fueling tankers that was awarded to Boeing last year.
An earlier move into the United States yielded significant payoffs for the company. The American market share of EADS’s helicopter division, Eurocopter, doubled to around 50 percent after the company opened an assembly line in 2004 in Columbus, Miss., for its UH-72 Lakota and A-Star choppers. Customers include the United States military, the Coast Guard, police departments, hospitals and tour operators.
European governments, particularly in Germany and France, are likely to be wary of such a move by a company considered one of Europe’s industrial jewels. But according to one person with knowledge of the plan, the governments are likely to be persuaded that it could eventually create as many as 10 jobs in Europe — not only at Airbus, but also in its supplier network — for every one job created in Alabama.