Airbus: Small Step, Big Possibilities

EADS to locate Airbus engineering facility at former U.S. Air Force base.

Construction of an Airbus engineering center is expected to begin this month in Mobile, Ala., the first step in what could eventually develop into a large-scale production complex.

The Toulouse, France-based aircraft manufacturer will open the center at Brookley Complex, a former U.S. Air Force base located on Mobile Bay near downtown Mobile that has been transformed into an industrial complex. The Mobile Airport Authority, which owns Brookley, will construct the facility and lease space to the European Aeronautics Defense and Space Co. NV (EADS), of which Airbus is a joint company with the UK's BAE Systems.

Airbus North America says the center eventually will support 150 engineers. It is slated to open in 2007.

Initially, assignments at the new facility will relate to Airbus' A350 aircraft and will include the design of interiors such as ceiling panels, overhead storage bins, interior furnishings, seats and crew rest compartments.

However, the engineering center may be just the start of a much larger effort that EADS will deploy if U.S. defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. wins the bid for the U.S. Air Force aerial tanker refueling replacement program. Northrop Grumman has entered the competition for the program as prime contractor, with EADS North America as its principal subcontractor.

"Joining together with Northrop Grumman on the KC-30 tanker program is a significant milestone in our strategy to successfully participate in the U.S. military market," said Ralph Crosby, EADS North America chairman and CEO, in September in announcing the joint effort.

EADS' efforts to win the project, however, predate its teaming with Northrop Grumman. EADS in June announced plans to locate a large-scale production facility in Mobile should it win the tanker refueling program. In October Northrop Grumman stated it would build a facility adjacent to EADS' proposed site in Mobile, again contingent upon winning the project.

Depending on the size of the Air Force order, EADS says its total facility investment could eventually reach $600 million. Both companies say employment levels could extend to 1,000 high-tech aerospace workers.

Of course, a whole lot depends on the U.S. Air Force. The initial process was delayed in September, said Northrop Grumman, but "we are hopeful that things will get back on track early [in 2006]," says Brandon Belote, Northrop Grumman vice president, corporate and internal communications. "We expect to get a formal request for proposal in late 2006 or early 2007. The first aircraft should be built in approximately late 2008 or early 2009."

Airbus North America already has one engineering center in the United States, located in Wichita, Kansas. Three other Airbus North America locations include its Herndon, Va., headquarters, a warehouse facility in Ashburn, Va., and the Airbus Training Center in Miami.

Airbus North America is currently accepting resumes for its Mobile site from engineers with five to 15 years of experience in aircraft interiors design, cargo and cabin customization.

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