Airbus Delivers Its First US-Built Plane to JetBlue
Photo courtesy of Airbus
Last fall, at a brand new, spacious, LEED-certified facility in Mobile, Alabama, Airbus began assembling jets for the first time on U.S. soil. The first completed jet — an A321 — rolled off the assembly line in late February to be painted and flight-tested. And this week, New York-based JetBlue Airways took delivery of the first plane, dubbed “BluesMobile.”
While Airbus also assembles planes in France, Germany, and China, Boeing has always assembled their planes on American soil. Until just a few years ago, Boeing’s passenger planes were all built near Seattle, Washington at two sites. But in 2011, they began building the 787 Dreamliner in Charleston, South Carolina in order to keep up with production demands from airline customers.
What is the significance here? It’s the encroachment of a manufacturing superpower — the equivalent of Ford building cars in Germany, the home of BMW.
Boeing has dominated U.S. aircraft manufacturing for decades, especially since buying McDonnell Douglas in December, 1996 for over $13 billion. While it’s doubtful that Airbus will ever rise to dominance here in the U.S., most U.S. airlines do have Airbus planes composing at least part of their fleet. Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit, United, and Virgin America all have A320 family aircraft. American and Delta also have larger Airbus jets, the A330.
Alaska and Southwest are the only large U.S. airlines with all-Boeing fleets — though with the recently announced Alaska/Virgin America merger, it’s likely that Virgin’s all Airbus fleet will be adopted into Alaska’s fleet. Alaska has a major hub in Seattle, the epicenter of Boeing manufacturing, and even has the statement, “Proudly all Boeing” on the nose of each of its planes. Alaska could decide to sell off Virgin’s Airbus fleet if Boeing is able to replace those planes with 737s at a 1-to-1 rate. It is beneficial for an airline to maintain only one aircraft type, because it avoids complexities with pilot training and maintenance costs.
At the Mobile Final Assembly Line (FAL), pre-assembled aircraft sections are matched after being shipped from Hamburg, Germany. These major components include the fuselage sections, wings, tail, and horizontal stabilizer. Before being collected in Hamburg, the components are manufactured at several sites throughout Europe. The planes do have many U.S. made parts, including their engines.
Prior to beginning production in Mobile, many employees were sent to Airbus’ facilities in Europe, where they learned production techniques directly from their counterparts across the Atlantic. The FAL has five major workstations. Each of these stations is an important milestone in the completion of the aircraft, such as joining fuselage sections and attaching the wings, engines, and installing the cabin interior components.
Demand for Airbus planes continues to grow globally. Recently, the A320 narrow body family (A319, A320, and A321) has sold more than its Boeing equivalent, the 737, though Boeing still holds more market share.
Both manufacturers have recently updated their offerings for this narrow body type. Airbus was first to market, with their A320neo. The “neo” stands for New Engine Option. Airlines are constantly looking for ways to save money, and the new engines from Pratt & Whitney and General Electric promise to save a significant of fuel, which is not only one of the most expensive costs for an airline, it’s also the most volatile because of the fluctuation in global oil prices. The A320neo family of planes has received 3,621 orders to date, according to Airbus’ website.
Boeing was forced to respond to the A320neo, and is also offering a new engine option for its 737, dubbed the 737 MAX. Boeing says the MAX will be 20 percent more fuel efficient than current generation 737s. This savings depends on a combination of aerodynamic efficiencies gained, but also a brand new engine. Boeing has chosen to offer the CFM LEAP-1B engine exclusively for the MAX. The first MAX is expected to be delivered to Southwest Airlines in the 3rd quarter of 2017, but the testing program is progressing at such a swift speed that it may actually be delivered ahead of the project deadline, according to rumors.
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