Airbus SE Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders personally promised the U.K. government the company plans to retain its British operations “long into the future’’ in a turnaround from a staunch critic of the divorce from the European Union.
Enders’s promise was made in a letter this month to Business Secretary Greg Clark, according to an official who declined to be named citing private correspondence. It’s a critical development given how vocal Enders has been in the recent past about condemning Brexit as a threat to manufacturing.
Enders wrote that the aerospace giant would continue to see the U.K. as a “home country and a competitive place to invest.’’ The “home country” reference is a nod to company’s 15,000 U.K. employees. That status gives Airbus’s national divisions priority and influence on production and strategy decisions.
The letter comes at a time when U.K. manufacturers are becoming increasingly jittery about the possible effects of Brexit, including losing access to skilled European workers, and increased customs checks on components. A spokesman for Airbus U.K. couldn’t immediately respond to questions submitted after normal working hours.
An Airbus spokesman declined to comment.
The endorsement by Enders provides a timely boost to Prime Minister Theresa May and adds to her arsenal in making the case that her Brexit deal won’t jeopardize British jobs.
The assurance may raise questions about whether it was a response to changes in the funding deal Airbus first negotiated almost two decades ago with countries including the U.K. that allowed it to develop the A380 jumbo. The manufacturer said on Wednesday that future obligations for refundable advances declined by more than $1.4 billion, with the bulk of the discount coming from revisions to the A380’s outlook and talks to restructure the deal.
Airbus didn’t provide a breakdown of the terms with different countries, and the U.K. Business Department declined to comment on the matter.
Another possible spur for the letter was the manufacturer’s $16 billion order from its biggest customer, Emirates, which it announced on Jan. 18. That helped bring its A380 program back from the brink, extending manufacturing through to 2029.
The missive talked about providing “planning stability’’ for thousands of employees working on the A380 program at Airbus facilities in Broughton, northern Wales, and Filton, near Bristol, describing the plants as among its most productive.
Airbus employs 6,000 people in Broughton and another 4,000 in Filton. At least seven countries have seized on Brexit as an opportunity to wrest away Britain’s five-decade dominance of wing construction for Airbus by pitching for a share of the high-value, precision manufacturing work.
France, Germany and Spain from within the EU, as well as the U.S., China, Mexico and South Korea have all approached Airbus regarding future wing work.
While Enders’s letter doesn’t say Britain will be selected to build wings for future aircraft models, his indication that the company sees a long-term future in Britain and intends to increase collaboration with the government on research and development, may settle some nerves among its British employees.
By Alex Morales and Benjamin Katz