Posted on Monday 2 December 2019 by Ulster Business

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As Bombardier’s Northern Ireland business is sold off to Spirit AeroSystems in a deal worth more than $1bn, and is continuing to land sales for its part-Belfast made aircraft, John Mulgrew looks at the state of play for the plane-making giant

It’s been quite a journey for one of Northern Ireland’s largest manufacturers, and an industry giant which still appears to be looking ahead as it’s being sold off for around $1.1bn (£880m).

Bombardier’s Northern Ireland operations – which include around 3,600 staff – will soon be in the hands of US-based Spirit AeroSystems, as the Canadian-owned manufacturer continues to shed many of its wider aerospace operations.

The parent firm is hoping that the disposal will give it more liquidity as it attempts to reduce debt. Spirit is also buying a Bombardier factory in Morocco – a location which some of the Belfast operation’s work was outsourced to a few years back.

But what for Bombardier here? It’s already been something of a page-turner for the firm, formerly Short Brothers – from huge swathes of job cuts, to struggling with its passenger aircraft gamble, ending up in a trade war with US rival Boeing, and then Airbus acquiring a majority stake in the former C Series jets (now A220), of which the wings and part of the fuselage are made here.

What it means for its new owners is further bolstering that relationship with Airbus. Any form of takeover should raise at least some concern among a workforce, but the Spirit deal should see its work develop further with France’s largest aircraft maker.

When the company’s Northern Ireland operations were placed on the market, there was concern among both workers and the unions. But there was certainly some sigh of relief from the industry and workforce when the buyer was one intrinsically involved in the sector, and not private equity.

Paul Everitt, who heads up industry group ADS, said it was “welcome news for the highly skilled workforce in Belfast, the successful aerospace sector in Northern Ireland and the whole UK aerospace industry… while also opening up new opportunities for the Belfast facility to grow its business with the US and elsewhere”.

“With the future of the operations assured, the exceptional workforce at the Belfast facility will now be able to continue to use their world-class expertise and skills as an integral part of the aerospace industry. We look forward to working closely with Spirit as they continue to grow their UK footprint.”

Michael Ryan, chief operations officer for aerostructures at Bombardier Aviation, said: “Through this agreement with Bombardier, we are delighted that Spirit, a global, tier-one aerostructure manufacturer and supplier, has recognised our unique offering and growth potential. We look forward to an exciting future ahead.”

For the flagship A220 aircraft, securing new orders will be a key part of improving the balance sheet, and ensuring the NI workforce’s security. Since the sale was agreed, Air Senegal has confirmed it is to buy eight Airbus A220-300 aircraft. The airline said the efficiency of the A220 would help cut operating costs.

We won’t know if any changes will take place at the company here until the deal completes, likely at the beginning of next year, but there remains hope that, with cost and job-cutting having already been part of the Bombardier story in recent years, that the current workforce and presence can continue to build on the success of what remains one of the stalwarts of manufacturing here.

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