Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Airbus Concerned Brexit Will Curb Flow of Workers in Europe

  • Company’s entire wing production is reliant on U.K. facilities
  • CEO Enders says aerospace firms must seek to influence debate

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Airbus SE, the European planemaker with production sites dotted around the continent, is concerned that Brexit will make it harder to shift workers between countries, hobbling decades of business practice at a manufacturer built on the free movement of people and goods.

Airbus makes wings for all of its jets in the U.K. and operates multiple daily delivery flights from a Welsh factory to its base in Toulouse, France, and a second assembly line in Hamburg, as well as corporate shuttles for managers. Any curbs on travel once Britain leaves the European Union would make it harder to operate, said Klaus Richter, the company’s purchasing chief.

“You can’t run this operation by breathing through a straw,” Richter, who also heads Germany’s aviation association, told journalists in Berlin. “That’s something that occupies us.”

Airbus is a poster-child for successful European integration after France, Germany, Spain and the U.K. pooled large parts of their aerospace expertise to create a group which today competes on a global scale with Boeing Co. The company’s production method, whereby parts are built at facilities across Europe and sent to Toulouse or Hamburg for final assembly, allows it to manage work requirements more nimbly while granting workers time abroad.

Restrictions on free movement are seen as an inevitable consequence of Brexit, with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May vowing to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year. Key industries and services in Britain says the curbs mustn’t go too far, since they need a steady supply of foreign labor to fill posts that local people are unwilling to take or aren’t sufficiently qualified for.

Vital Expertise

Airbus employs more than 4,000 people at its Filton site near Bristol, mainly in wing design and manufacturing, while the Welsh facility at Broughton has 6,000-plus workers and churns out more than 1,000 wings a year, many of which are loaded onto massive Beluga transport planes for final assembly. The biggest A380 superjumbo wings are taken to a local seaport for shipping.

Airbus also has final assembly lines in China and Alabama for its single-aisle aircraft, the company’s bread-and-butter products that compete with Boeing Co.’s 737 models.

While some wing components are already made in Stade in northern Germany today, Britain is wary of guarding its expertise in making the vital parts. Airbus has invested heavily at its U.K. sites to accommodate a higher proportion of carbon components as the industry moves away from metal frames to lighter composite materials, Richter said.

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Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders has voiced similar concerns, saying in February that the aerospace sector “will do what we can as an industry to take influence on both sides of the Channel.” He added that there are “a lot of industries who share this concern and who share this same approach as we do.”

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