MOBILE, Ala. (Reuters) - Airbus Group (AIR.PA) said on Sunday that its first U.S. factory, due to formally open on Monday, will be the most efficient in the world and will focus on building the largest version of the company’s single-aisle aircraft.
The elegant, skylit factory on 116 acres here will be capable of making up to eight A320 family jetliners a month, though Airbus said it has no plans for that level of production.
The factory is a potent challenge to rival Boeing Co (BA.N). Both companies now make 42 single-aisle planes a month and plan to lift output sharply to fill back orders for new planes.
Airbus originally planned to produce mainly smaller A320s in Mobile, but the larger A321 version, which seats up to 240 passengers, has outsold the Boeing rival.
“This is where the U.S. market is going,” said Barry Eccleston, president of Airbus Americas.
Boeing makes its competing 737 jetliner at a single factory in Renton, Washington, and plans to lift the rate to 52 a month in 2018. Airbus, with A320 facilities in Germany, France and China, plans to lift production to 50 a month in 2017.
Airbus Chief Executive Fabrice Brégier said demand easily supports producing 60 a month, and Airbus expects to decide this year whether to target that rate. If it does, it would add a fourth assembly line in Germany before raising production further in Alabama, he said.
The new U.S. plant is scheduled to be producing four planes a month by late 2017, and gives Airbus the ability to go higher just by adding work shifts and small capital investments.
“We can go to eight (a month) with very little adjustment,” said Timo Zaremba, product quality manager for the U.S. factory.
More than half of Mobile’s production will be the larger A321 jet and that would likely rise to three-quarters, Brégier added.
The U.S. presence gives Airbus a strong card to play in selling to U.S. airlines. Already Airbus’ current backlog will double its U.S. market share to 40 percent. The Mobile plant will supply North American airlines, with the first two planes going to JetBlue Airways Corp (JBLU.O) and American Airlines Group (AAL.O) starting in the second quarter of 2016.
Airbus said it introduced several efficient techniques in the factory, taking ideas from existing plants. Among them: a machine that installs the 2,400 rivets that attach wings to the fuselage. Those improvements will be copied by other factories.
Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Paul Simao and Andrea Ricci