Europe’s Airbus inaugurated a new assembly line for its A321neo jetliner in southwest France on Monday, granting a new lease of life to the deserted home of the defunct A380 superjumbo as it basks in record demand for smaller jets.
Speaking in the cavernous Jean-Luc Lagardere plant outside Toulouse, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire hailed the rebirth of an “industrial cathedral” as President Emmanuel Macron pursues policies of boosting manufacturing employment.
Airbus says the new line will create 700 jobs by 2026, about half the full-time total when the world’s largest jet was built there, while supporting a fabric of thousands of suppliers.
The plant’s makeover highlights a shift in the industry’s attention from its largest and boldest creations like the double-decker A380 to stalwart single-aisle designs, which are enjoying a second wind due to their increased performance and efficiency.
The A321neo is the largest version of the A320 series of jets, which was relaunched with new engines in 2010 – just in time for a boom in demand stoked partly by low interest rates.
It is the eighth assembly line for the A320 family, with previously announced expansion plans in the United States and China due to bring the worldwide total to 10. The first plane is due to be completed in late 2023 for delivery next year.
Its opening comes as competition between Airbus and arch-rival Boeing shifts towards production strategy, with both companies struggling to deliver on bulging order books.
The new line sits along one edge of the world’s second-largest building by usable space, supported by automated stores where robotic pickers will select parts and tools for workers. Other robots will be used to join part of the upper fuselage.
The facility is part of efforts to lift total A320-family output to 75 a month in 2026 from an estimated 45 now. Some suppliers have called the target ambitious.
In an effort to expand automation and cut costs, an existing A320-family line is expected to move to a vacant bay in the Lagardere hall from its nearby current facility, where Concorde was built. Boeing too is reallocating space to small jets.
Monday’s ceremony came days after Airbus posted data showing the A321neo had become its most-sold model with more than 5,000 orders, surpassing the original A320 sister version.
Environmental critics say burgeoning sales of the current generation of jets will make it harder to meet climate goals.
Le Maire told Reuters aircraft like the A321 still offered significant savings in emissions compared to jets they replace.
Monday’s ceremony contrasted with the lavish sound-and-light show in front of European leaders in 2005, when the A380 was unveiled to huge fanfare as a symbol of European economic might.
Almost 20 years on, smaller medium-haul workhorse jets generate the bulk of industry profits. Production of the A380 superjumbo ended two years ago, followed by Boeing’s 747.
The ghost of the A380 is not entirely laid to rest, however.
A walled-off area in the rest of the plant is being re-used for an 18-month programme of A380 inspections and repairs after cracks emerged in some wing parts, Reuters reported on Friday.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Richard Lough and David Evans)