The Retirement Systems of Alabama’s (RSA)
Role in Recruiting Airbus to Mobile
By Mark Fagan
The RSA’s CEO, Dr. David G. Bronner, began building relationships with corporate leaders and offering financing for relocation to Alabama in the mid-1970s. Bronner and RSA’s Director of Industrial Development, Glen Pringle, played a critical role in recruiting and financing the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama in 1994 which launched the automotive industry in Alabama. Bronner and Pringle began working in 1999 to establish the aerospace industry in Alabama. They targeted the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) for production in Alabama. EADS changed their name to Airbus Group in 2014.
In 2001, RSA jointly funded with British-owned GKN Aerospace and EADS, a new project for the development of the Wing Trailing Edge Panels for the Airbus A380 passenger plane (world’s largest passenger plane). This tripartite agreement started the RSA’s relationship with EADS. In 2002, the RSA was honored at the London Air Show for RSA’s GKN investment. In 2005, GKN Aerospace opened a plant in Tallassee, Alabama which designs, tests, manufactures, and assembles composite structures for civil, military, commercial, and space programs. They manufacture for the Sikorsky Blackhawk, Airbus A330/340 and A380 jetliners, the F-A022 Raptor for Lockheed-Martin, and the GEnx engine for General Electric. GKN Aerospace has added more than 1,000 jobs to their Alabama operations since 2005.
Subsequently, RSA became the prime catalyst in bringing another EADS project to Alabama. In 2005, EADS (Airbus) selected Mobile, Alabama for its Airbus Engineering Center, its CASA North America Aircraft Service and Delivery Facility, and the KC-30 Final Assembly Facility. The 48,000 sf high-tech center employs aerospace engineers for Airbus. The RSA then began working with the Mobile Port Authority to convince EADS to make Mobile their future assembly center for their new A330 Flight Refueling Tanker. In 2012, Airbus announced plans for a $600 million dollar assembly plant at Mobile’s Brookley Aerospace for their A320 family (their first American aircraft production plant). Final assembly on their A319, A320, and A321 began in 2015 with deliveries to customers in 2016. In January 2019, Airbus announced the construction of a new assembly plant at Brookley for their A220 airliner.
Bob Riley, US Congressman from 1996-2000 and Governor of Alabama (2003-2011), played a large role in convincing EADS (Airbus) to locate an aircraft assembly plant in Mobile in 2005. Regarding my book on RSA since 1973, he stated, “I have worked closely with Bronner (CEO for RSA) for many years to bring corporations to Alabama for economic development. Bronner introduced me to Allan McArtor, Vice President of Airbus, when I was in the congress, and I started building a relationship with Allan. That relationship culminated some years later with Airbus building an aircraft assembly plant in Mobile and adding a second line in 2019. Now, Alabama is on the verge of being the fourth largest commercial aircraft producer in the world, behind France, Germany, and the state of Washington. Huntsville and Mobile are leading areas for the aviation and aerospace industry.” Riley sent a personal note to Bronner that said, “Very few can say they fundamentally changed the state for the better, you can!”
According to Jo Bonner Jr., new president of University of South Alabama, U.S. congressman from 2003-2013, and chief of staff for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey from 2018-2021, stated to me, “Dr. Bronner brought Airbus to my attention when I was in congress and eight years later, Airbus located their A320 aircraft Final Assembly Line in Mobile. He was instrumental in helping us build this relationship with Airbus. This is the most popular single-aisle commercial plane in the world and there are some 9,000 of these planes on back order with a hundred already
having been assembled and delivered from the Mobile FAL alone. They also recently added a second assembly line for the A220 family of aircraft.”
Allan McArtor, chairman emeritus of the board for Airbus Americas and Allan McArtor was chairman of the board for Airbus Americas from 2001-20017 in which he provided strategy for Airbus companies throughout the United States, Canada, and Latin America. He established the A320 and A220 aircraft assembly lines in Mobile, Alabama. McArtor told me, “Doc Bronner and I go back many, many years. He is the best “salesman” for Alabama, and he played a significant role in making sure the Airbus executive team was well aware of the success of Alabama’s auto industry, the aerospace industry in Huntsville, and other industrial successes. Doc was passionate about Alabama’s workforce and work ethic. Doc not only told me about RSA’s substantial investment in Alabama enterprises, he took me around to show me the remarkable impact RSA has made on the commerce and quality of life in Alabama.”
There were 260 A220 and A320 family aircraft delivered from Mobile from 2016 to September 23, 2021. This included 54 in 2021 with first 10 A220s delivered by April 2021. These aircraft cost approximately $100 million each ($2.6 billion). Projections are for delivery of seven A320s and four A220s per month by the end of 2021. The Mobile plant builds planes for American, Delta, JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, and Hawaiian Airlines.
Airbus Plant in Mobile
Getting GKN and EADS (Airbus) to Alabama led to getting companies supplying aircraft parts, engineering services, software design, systems engineering, space vehicle components, navigation systems, and injection moldings/plastics to Alabama. Alabama has 13,200 aerospace manufacturing jobs and ranks among the Top 5 states for aerospace engineers (4,100). Over 300 aerospace companies from more than 30 different countries have chosen Alabama, including industry giants such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation, Raytheon, Collins Aerospace, Northrup Grumman, Sikorsky, and GKN Aerospace. These aerospace facilities are clustered around Huntsville, Mobile, Decatur, and Montgomery.
*Dr. Fagan is professor emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He has written six books which include The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its History and Economic Impact and Coastal Alabama Economic History. The quotes in this article came from statements for the Oral History chapter in his recent book called, Alabama’s Public Pension Fund Growth and Economic Expansion Since 1973. It is available at https://store.bookbaby.com/profile/MarkFagan.