June 25, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Airbus
Jens Flottau and Bradley Perrett/Beijing
Despite mishaps experienced by other manufacturers in China, the Airbus final assembly line in Tianjin has been operating as planned. With four more years to go until the end of the first production contract and the A320NEO on the horizon, talks about a longer-term commitment have begun.
Airbus is evidently looking for some incentive from partner Avic to keep the plant going, especially since Airbus's president for China, Laurence Barron, says their joint operating company at Tianjin is only breaking even. Moreover, Airbus could assemble Tianjin's A320s and A319s more cheaply if it directed the work to its large-volume facility at Hamburg, which is also better connected with the company's logistics setup. But Tianjin serves a bigger purpose: It is supposed to greatly improve Airbus's market access to China.
The current business plan expires at the end of the first quarter of 2016. “We have an agreement on when we have to make a decision on the FAL [final assembly line] extension,” says Barron. He hints that talks about the project actually started earlier than envisioned.
“If we extend [the life of] the final assembly line, then automatically the NEO comes into the picture,” he says. Conceivably, the plant's jigs and tools could be removed and set up elsewhere, he notes, although that appears to be unlikely.
The Tianjin line is currently assembling three aircraft a month, working up to its designed capacity of four, whereas Hamburg's three lines should be turning out 25 a month by year-end. Airbus has delivered 89 aircraft from Tianjin since 2009, against a contractual requirement to assemble 284 there.
When Airbus and Chinese authorities agreed to establish the line in 2006, Airbus was rewarded with an order for A320-family aircraft; the Chinese gained not only a prestigious manufacturing facility but also, as was widely assumed, a chance to study Airbus assembly techniques. That know-how could then be applied to the then-imminent Comac C919 program.