Posted on Friday 10 May 2019 by John Mulgrew
John Mulgrew speaks to Paul Everitt, boss of aerospace body ADS, about the future of Bombardier in Northern Ireland, the pitfalls of Brexit and a rapidly evolving global industry worth billions to the UK each year
It’s a multi-billion pound industry which saw deliveries last year worth almost £30bn to the UK.
And aircraft and aerospace is something which has continued to be part of Northern Ireland’s manufacturing heritage – Bombardier still one of the largest employers here.
“Overall, the UK is a key part of the global aerospace industry. The global marketplace is on to growth, strongly,” Paul Everitt, ADS chief executive tells Ulster Business.
He heads up the industry body which represents more than 1,000 firms involved in the sector, from the small, to the scale of international aircraft makers.
Here, Canadian-owned Bombardier has gone through something of a tumultuous few years. It started with the loss of 1,080 jobs – announced in 2016 – with further cuts unveiled in the months and years that followed, a battle with rival Boeing to sell its C Series passenger jets – part-made in Belfast – and then a tie-up with French giant Airbus, taking a majority stake the C Series.
For the industry here, Bombardier employs around 4,000 workers across its sites – the majority of which are based in Belfast,
with hundreds working on the now rebranded A220 jets.
“Personally I’m very optimistic,” Paul says. “The A220 is a great product. The support Airbus is able to provide, it will have a long and successful future and that will underpin and support jobs in Northern Ireland for the long term.
“We need to recognise that there is an ongoing competitive battle. Companies will always have to improve. As we move to a more digital future, the nature of the jobs we see in manufacturing facilities will change.
“… there will be ups and downs, as programmes and fortunes rises and fall, but the great thing about the aerospace sector is it’s high value, long term, and people are on salaries you can build a life on.”
Paul’s a fan of Michael Ryan – the head of Bombardier in Northern Ireland, who’s now in charge of the entire aerostructures and engineering services arm of the Montreal-headquartered company.
“I pay credit to Michael Ryan. They have created capability in the plant and around the business. They are winning business, not just from Bombardier, but from external customers as well. That demonstrates there is a life beyond whatever the name above the door might be. It’s about the quality and expertise.
“The team in Northern Ireland have demonstrated they can deliver, to quality, time and price, in a way everyone around the world recognises.
“The market is swinging in the A220’s direction. We been through a period where all costs were relatively low, and allowed a range of airlines to sustain their existing fleet, and not worry about oil prices or fuel efficiency. As they have risen, it re-emphasises the need to have highly fuel efficient products.
“The A220 is a remarkable aircraft, and it delivers a level of fuel efficiency and operational efficiency that is hard to beat. I think the pressure on airlines will only support more and more serious interest in the aircraft.”
Brexit is another concern for the industry as a whole. “(The industry) is facing some headwinds because of Brexit, and we can see that the UK is not growing (as it should) because many companies have stopped or curtailed investment, and minimised risk to Brexit by putting things elsewhere.
“The key players, such as Airbus and Boeing, are still ramping up our production. They are very busy. We are not seeing quite as much of that market as we would expect because of concerns over what will happen in the coming months.
“From ADS’s position, there are good things going on. The UK Government has understood the importance of the aerospace industry in its long-term industrial strategy – following through into real manufacturing jobs.
“In 2018 we signed an aerospace sector deal as part of the Government’s industrial strategy – that is for £125m of Government money, to be more than matched by industry to support the electrification of flight, and other solutions, and to prepare for what might be a quite an exciting change in the next five to 10 years.
“We feel there is a recognition of the importance of the industry, and governments are backing. But clearly it’s a difficult period.
With Brexit, Paul says the industry wants to remain closely aligned with Europe, and maintain existing relationships.
“Looking at the industry as a whole, we have been clear. In terms of the challenges, we want to stay in the European aviation safety regime, no friction at the border and enough time to prepare for the new relationship (between the UK and the EU).
But how could any upheaval hit Bombardier, and the industry here at home? “From a public point of view, it’s the same issues. The sensitivities around the border, from the friction point of view… what works in Northern Ireland, we would like to be working in the rest of the UK too. We want to avoid any infrastructure at the border.”
The next major shift change in the aerospace industry will the growing market for electric aircraft. It’s some way out in terms of becoming the norm when popping over to sunny Spain with family, but it’s coming.
“We are looking at significant and radical change, but over time. We are not going to see large aircraft being powered by electric batteries, but we will see greater electrification of those products.
“Lighter, more fuel efficient aircraft with less noise. There will be continued incremental improvements in products, but early stage will be new and niche products.
“Rolls Royce and Airbus are working on hybrid electric aircraft, a 50-60 seater, which could potentially make a significant environmental improvement.”
And it’s not something which could be entirely alien to Bombardier. The development of electric and hybrid aircraft requires big money, therefore it tends to be the big players which can afford to plough cash into their development.
“Some will be developed and flourish, and some will fall away,” Paul says.
“While there are always new opportunities or companies, making aircraft and flying them safely is not something that is easy to learn how to do.”