Posted on Thursday 2 May 2019 by Ulster Business

JM

Bombardier is never likely to be far from the front pages of our daily newspapers here, whether it be good, or bad news – and now, it’s the sale of the company’s Belfast base, writes John Mulgrew.

In the last four years, a turbulent sector, challenging market conditions, cost-cutting and outsourcing, and a struggling and risky investment in a new market all played a part in a company getting significant column inches – and not just in the business pages.

Not too long after the business conversation left the recession in its wake, where seemingly every interview was somewhat tainted by questions about cutbacks, challenging times and cliches about 'weathering the storm' – myself included, Bombardier broke its news that 1,080 jobs were going across its sites in Northern Ireland.

To its credit, at a regional level, boss Michael Ryan made time for business journalists – one-on-one, perhaps representing the seriousness and scale of the redundancies.

What followed was a series of additional cuts – some fuelled by outsourcing, which included a story I filed in 2016 about the company moving some of its former Belfast-based operations to warmer, albeit cheaper, bases in Morocco and Mexico.

Attention was always sighted firmly towards the performance of its C Series passenger jet series – the C300 and smaller C100 aircraft. They had heralded a significant advancement in fuel efficient single aisle passenger jets – and a major, and perhaps risky, step in Bombardier’s aircraft division. Its main focus, until then, was in its smaller jet aircraft, business aircraft and turbo-prop Q400s – which are part made in Belfast and used by airlines such as Flybe.

The attention of journalists at home, and globally, was on the business securing major orders – or orders of intent. Several included around 90 aircraft from US giant Delta. It received criticism, however, from rivals and aviation buffs for the actual sale price of the fleet – significantly less than the book price, something which is part and parcel of jet sales.

This was part of what would become one of Bombardier’s biggest challenges. US rival Boeing challenged the fellow aircraft maker, citing its selling off of the planes at, or allegedly below, market value in the US was unfair, especially given its assistance from governments, including chunky assistance from Canada.

It looked like it was going Boeing’s way – a preliminary decision from the US’s Department of Commerce ruling in favour of its native son. However, what followed was something of a sigh of relief – with the US International Trade Commission ruling in Bombardier’s favour. The firm had been facing a 292% tariff on the sale of its planes to the US.

The next step in the journey was French aerospace giant Airbus taking a majority stake in the C Series production, which also brought an end to that brand name, with Airbus fitting the newly acquired lines in as the A220. In May’s edition of Ulster Business, Paul Everitt of aerospace group ADS told me he’s optimistic that the Bombardier and Airbus order book will grow.

Brexit wasn’t far from away from Bombardier when it came to the impact on the company’s operations here. Shortly before the vote, boss Michael Ryan wrote to staff to say that the business would be best placed remaining in the EU, while warning in August last year that a ‘no deal’ exit could cost the firm £30m.

And so, the next step in the Bombardier journey brings us to the sale of its Belfast operations to new owners. Of course, the retention and strength of the workforce is front and centre of the concerns raised by unions and political representatives, as it should be. We’ll all be watching closely, with fingers crossed.

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