September 30, 2013
Credit: AS350: Eurocopter
Eurocopter has decided to assemble AS350 Ecureuil light helicopters in the U.S. to shore up its production capacity in Columbus, Miss., but the move is riling French unions.
Workers unions at the Eurocopter plant in Marignane, near Marseille, where the AS350 is produced, are uncomfortable with the move to disperse helicopter production to locations outside France, often as part of offset deals. Company managers say it is part of Eurocopter's strategy to be closer to the customer and not about reducing production costs.
“This is not about looking for low-cost production. If we wanted to do that, we could have moved production to Mexico,” said Dominique Maudet, Eurocopter executive vice president of global business and services, at the Helitech exhibition here last week.
He noted that the cost of producing aircraft in the U.S. is little different from doing so in France. “We are not de-localizing; we are just localizing. We are not saying jobs would leave [France] and go there, but we are developing the business in the U.S. This will increase the market share, and so this will benefit the European workforce as well,” he added.
The Columbus plant, staffed by a large number of U.S. military veterans, is the main assembly site for the UH-72 Lakota Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) for the U.S. Army. But the Defense Department's April 10 budget trimmed the planned buy of 346 Lakotas by more than 30 aircraft, ending production in 2014, which would bring an early end to what is seen as a critical contract for the European defense manufacturer.
“We are still fighting to get the Lakota numbers back up,” Maudet said. “We are not giving up.”
Maudet points out that possible Foreign Military Sales (FMS) could help boost production numbers. The government is negotiating the sale of six UH-72s to the Thai armed forces, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced in June.