Airbus’ first U.S.-built plane, the largest A320-family jet known as the A321, rolled out before a large crowd at the new $600 million factory in Mobile, Alabama, a site that was an empty field three years ago.
“We are so honored to be the first delivery here,” JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes said at the handover ceremony.
The plant employs about 600 people and is expected to attract a network of suppliers in the Mobile area. So far, major parts are shipped from Europe, except engines, which are U.S.-made and shipped from their suppliers, General Electric Co (GE.N) and Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp (UTX.N), Airbus said.
The plant holds strategic and symbolic significance for the European plane maker. It ends an era in which Boeing was the only U.S.-based maker of such large commercial airplanes and it adds to Airbus’ industrial capacity as the world’s largest plane makers race to boost production through the end of the decade.
Being “U.S.-built” is not a decisive factor in aircraft sales but “it certainly doesn’t hurt to become part of the infrastructure,” Airbus sales chief John Leahy told Reuters.
Airbus plans to notch up global A320 output to 60 a month in 2019. Boeing plans to lift output of its competing 737 planes to 57 a month the same year. Both build 42 a month currently.
The Alabama plant also shows Airbus’ growing global industrial base. Modeled on an Airbus plant in Hamburg, Germany, the Mobile facility is the company’s fourth assembly plant for single-aisle jets after Hamburg, the French city of Toulouse and the Chinese industrial port of Tianjin.
In contrast, Boeing builds all of its 737s at its single factory in Renton, Washington.
“Now it is our most modern factory anywhere in the world,” Leahy said of the Mobile factory.
Airbus broke ground at site in April 2013, began assembly of the first plane in July 2015, and plans to be producing four aircraft a month at the plant by late 2017. The plant is capable of building at twice that rate, Airbus said.
Airbus is aiming to win 50 percent of the U.S. market for single-aisle jetliners. It already is on track to capture 40 percent of such U.S. sales based on the existing orders in its backlog, up from 20 percent before Airbus’ newest single-aisle models were announced.
The second plane from the Mobile plant, also an A321, is due to go to American Airlines (AAL.O) in a few weeks.
Airbus is poised to win an order for 37 of its A321 jets from Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), industry sources said last week, raising the prospect that those jets could be assembled by U.S. workers 300 miles away in Alabama.
Leahy declined to comment on any unfinished negotiations but said U.S. airlines would be “first in the queue” to receive aircraft from the new facility, which also could be used for exports.
Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Frances Kerry and Bill Trott