Since its official opening last September, the Airbus final assembly line in Mobile has increased production on its way to rolling out as many as four planes per month by the end of 2017, and has brought several suppliers with it.
Since the French jet manufacturer announced in July 2012 it had chosen Brookley Aeroplex for its North American assembly line, the surrounding area has experienced economic benefits. It was a slow process, but just months before the first flight, South Alabama’s new aerospace industry — much like a fuselage — is starting to take shape.
“We’re having a slow, more methodical development, which is good because it allows us to get our infrastructure in place and make sure we can handle this growth as it comes,” Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Economic Development Troy Wayman said. “It’s not these huge number of jobs and huge suppliers, but [it’s] very much more methodical. What that means for us is the aerospace industry clusters more than any other industry.”
The “clustering,” which began with the Airbus announcement, should continue to have an impact and bring jobs to the area, Wayman said.
“Right now, we’re seeing small presences by big marquee-name companies that are bringing more and more capabilities to our area,” he said. “It kind of starts a snowball effect. As those services grow, more interest will build from other large companies and from larger service providers.”
In the three years since, several suppliers have agreed to make the jump to Mobile to be near the final assembly line — 15 in all — according to information provided by the Chamber. Of those, Hutchinson Aerospace, with 100 positions at one facility, and MAAS, with a combined 114 positions at two facilities, have made the largest related employment announcements.
The most recent supplier to follow suit is Zodiac Aerospace, a French manufacturer of cabin interiors, Mobile Airport Authority Chief of Staff Janis Pearman said. Zodiac is a 100-year-old company with more than 30,000 employees at 100 sites worldwide.
Mobile’s success luring suppliers to the area comes as no surprise to Wayman.
“We feel very positive about the future,” he said. “We think there will continue to be great opportunities and we’re going to continue to market the area and continue to meet with suppliers. We want to provide an environment where those kinds of companies can thrive and grow, but we also want to be able to attract new companies and we see that happening.”
Airbus spokeswoman Kristi Tucker agreed, saying the company is “always happy to welcome any company” to the area.
“They see what’s going on,” Tucker said. “They see where they fit into the picture.”
Globally, Airbus is coming off a record year, with the company seeing the most deliveries ever across its entire family of aircraft, Tucker said. In 2015, Airbus delivered 635 total aircraft, six more than in 2014, according to information provided by the company. Despite the increas in productivity, Airbus took more than 1,000 orders last year, leading to a nine-to-10-year backlog when combined with existing orders, Tucker said. Overall, the company has more than 6,700 pending orders.
The Mobile final assembly line is producing the A320 family of aircraft, representing three variants that are by far the company’s most popular products, accounting for more than 12,400 of its 16,307 orders to date. According to Airbus, 6,581 jets in the A320 family are flying today. At the same time, there is a backlog of more than 5,000 A320s, which Mobile will play an important part in producing, Tucker said.
“Production is going very well,” Tucker said. “There’s no change to Mobile on outlook right now. We’re ramping up to ‘rate four,’ which means four a month by the end of 2017.”
Currently the facility is looking at an inaugural flight in the first quarter of this year and its first delivery in the second quarter, Tucker said.
Meanwhile, the assembly line is currently working on a total of six planes. The first parts to arrive from Germany were for a JetBlue aircraft, but since then parts for five American Airlines orders have arrived. The sixth set of parts arrived Thursday, Jan. 14, Tucker said.
The facility currently has more than 300 employees and is looking to hire more throughout the year. Tucker couldn’t give an exact number because the company has a policy of not disclosing projections. But there are positions currently unfilled, she said. By the time it ramps up to full production in 2017, Airbus plans to employ as many as 1,000 people.
While it’s generally understood the new, niche manufacturing has improved the area’s economic sustainability, it’s too early to quantify the direct local impact from Airbus or its suppliers, Wayman said.
“We’re really not at that stage yet,” he said. “Some of these projects are smaller projects. Putting a quantifying number on it won’t make sense until we have more mass.”
Additionally, he said, the economic benefit may not all be related to the facility itself, but rather that it will feed off of the fact that a global manufacturer chose Mobile over other possible locations.
“I liken it to Mercedes in Tuscaloosa and the state,” he said. “Suddenly German companies were saying, ‘maybe there’s something to Alabama.’ Well, Airbus picking Mobile; we’ve always been an international community, but even more so now, specifically with the aviation industry.”
The development was also expected to revitalize the local real estate market. According to Mobile Area Association of Realtors Executive Director Chad Fincher, it’s rebounding nicely from previous years.
“Absolutely, we’ve seen an upward trend in the number of houses sold and property values,” he said.
Fincher credited Airbus for some of the resurgence, and suggested the aviation industry’s presence can increase the quality of life in Mobile, which can help local real estate agents market the area.
An upward trend is also reflected in the most recent reports released from the University of South Alabama’s Center for Real Estate and Economic Development. In Mobile, the number of sales for December increased by about 14 percent over November. Total sales increased by about 7 percent over the same time last year.
For the third quarter of 2015, Mobile County saw an overall increase in number of units sold over the same period in 2014, according to the report, jumping from 1,045 to 1,226. Meanwhile, the number of days a house stayed on the market decreased from third quarter of 2014 to third quarter of 2015.
The report also indicates an 18 percent increase in the sale of homes valued between $100,000 and $200,000. The average sale price dropped by around $100 from quarter to quarter, but the median sale price stayed level.
Baldwin County experienced a slight decrease in sales from November to December 2015, but saw increases in both average sale price and median sale price.
After falling to a total of 1,214 units sold in the third quarter of 2014, Baldwin County sales rebounded in the third quarter of 2015 with 1,444 units sold. Like Mobile County, Baldwin also saw a decrease in the average days on the market from 159 to 150.
Fincher said an increase in industry benefits both counties, as each area has selling points. For instance, Midtown is becoming more popular because “there are a lot of people looking for neighborhoods with walkability,” he said.
“People who’ve moved out of Midtown are moving back,” Fincher said. “There is a trend toward more centralized locations, close to amenities.”
On Thursday, Jan. 14, Airbus Engineering Site Director David Trent announced a new initiative to help mentor area middle school students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM programs).
As Airbus’ Flying Challenge starts this week, 30 employees at the company’s Mobile engineering center will mentor 48 6th- and 7th-grade students participating in Palmer Pillans Middle School’s STEM programs.
“With this partnership, Airbus is investing in Mobile, its aerospace future and our own future,” Trent said at an event at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center last week. “We endeavor to be good partners with the schools.”
The Flying Challenge represents a partnership between Airbus, the United Way of Southwest Alabama, the Mobile County Public School System and the Mobile Area Education Foundation. The agreement represents only the second of its kind in the U.S. and only the sixth worldwide, Trent said.
Principal Ed Sanderson said the partnership, expected to continue beyond this academic year, will help prepare students to move on to B.C. Rain High School’s aerospace academy.
“We’re excited about the Flying Challenge,” Sanderson said. “We are looking forward to this being one of the most exciting things to happen this year.”
Jason Johnson contributed to this report.
This story was updated at 9 a.m. on Thursday, January 21 to correct the number of A320 family aircraft currently flying.