Photographer: Paul McErlane/Bloomberg

Bombardier Envisages Airbus-Supplier Role for Its Belfast Plant

  • Factory could link up with aerospace giant, Cromer says
  • Future of site has been a major issue for U.K. government

Bombardier Inc.’s plant in Belfast, Northern Ireland, aims to become a supplier to Airbus SE following the European giant’s investment in the Canadian company’s C Series plane.

The U.K. aero-structures factory, which employs more than 4,000 people, currently makes carbon-fiber wings for the single-aisle jet, giving it the expertise to work for Airbus itself, Fred Cromer, Bombardier’s commercial aircraft chief, told Bloomberg TV at the Dubai Air Show on Monday.

“There is a real opportunity for Airbus to come in and create opportunities at that facility,” Cromer said, adding that the Belfast site, formerly known as Short Brothers and acquired by Bombardier in 1989, has significant experience as a third-party supplier to other top-rank aerospace manufacturers.

Airbus’s plan to take a majority stake in the C Series already promises to cut Bombardier’s costs, help win new orders and sidestep U.S. tariffs on the jet by moving some manufacturing to Alabama. Making parts for Airbus would further deepen the relationship and reinforce the possibility of the Canadian company’s technology featuring strongly in its new ally’s future models.

Employment at the Belfast plant has become a major issue for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Conservatives rely on Ulster’s Democratic Unionists for their majority in Parliament. May had lobbied U.S. President Donald Trump to reconsider the C Series tariffs -- imposed after Boeing Co. claimed Bombardier had received illegal state aid -- as they appeared to put the future of the model in jeopardy before the Airbus deal provided a lifeline.

Rolls-Royce, GE

In addition to its work for Bombardier planes, the factory currently makes engine housings for Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc and General Electric Co. and supplies cowls direct to Airbus for installation on current-generation A320-family turbines. A deal to make more parts for Airbus would safeguard Northern Ireland’s largest manufacturer after it eliminated more than 1,000 jobs as part of wider cuts at Bombardier linked to sluggish C Series sales.

The composite wings made in Belfast are among the most advanced C Series features. Airbus’s A320 and the 737 from Boeing, with which the 108-to-160-seat model overlaps, have an all-metal construction, even in their new upgraded forms. The A350 wide-body is the only aircraft in the European company’s lineup with a mainly carbon-fiber construction, including the wings made in Broughton, Wales.

Cromer said that the C Series has good order prospects in the Middle East, where Bombardier has yet to win an order for the plane, while declining to comment on whether a customer might be announced at the Dubai expo. EgytpAir said last year it was looking at the C Series, with Daily Egypt News reporting last month that it is ready to buy 12 of the largest C300 variant.

Bombardier said last week that it had won the first major C Series order in 18 months, with a commitment from an unidentified European customer to buy 31 planes worth $2.4 billion at list prices.

Cromer said in an interview on Sunday in Dubai that that it will be about two years before the planned C Series assembly line in Mobile is opened, adding that the $300 million facility will be funded by Bombardier but maintained by the enlarged C Series venture to be controlled by Airbus.

The lag and continued U.S. processing of Boeing’s complaint means that 75 planes ordered by Delta Air Lines Inc. that would be subject to the U.S. tariff if exported from Canada may need to be pushed back from planned delivery starting next year, and Bombardier is working with other customers that may now be able to take their planes earlier, the executive said.

Bombardier is meanwhile open to partnerships on other commercial-aircraft programs, he said. In addition to the C Series the Montreal-based company makes the CRJ regional jet and the Q400 regional turboprop, as well as a range of business aircraft.

Colin Bole, senior vice president at Bombardier’s commercial aircraft unit, said separately that the announcement of the Airbus deal has generally boosted C Series interest and may bring some orders to fruition more quickly. Other potential buyers may hold back to see if they can get more attractive terms for deals packaging the C Series with Airbus’s own models, he added.

— With assistance by Anurag Kotoky

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