Paris Air Show

Northern Ireland Contingent Shows Region's Talents

 - June 14, 2019, 7:00 AM
With its legacy of aviation capability, in part due to leftover security concerns from World War II, Northern Ireland has much to offer aerospace.

As Bombardier mulls its options for divesting its Belfast operations, the Northern Ireland-based arm of the Canadian company is attending this year’s Paris Air Show to promote its own and the region’s capabilities.

Bombardier (Chalet 278, Hall 2b G172) announced in early May that it would divest its operations in Belfast and in Morocco. The Belfast operation—which employs about 3,600 people and specializes in composite manufacturing—focuses on producing wings for the Airbus A220, previously the Bombardier C Series before Airbus bought a majority holding in the project. The Belfast facilities also produce fuselages, engine nacelles, and horizontal stabilizers, among other products. 

Ciara Kennedy, vice president of procurement and supply chain for aerostructures at Bombardier Aviation, said that ongoing discussions with interested parties remain confidential and that the company is engaging with employees, unions, and the UK government as matters progress.

Despite speculation about the future of the facilities and its employees, Bombardier Belfast is participating in this year’s Paris Air Show, Kennedy said, as part of the Invest Northern Ireland (Invest NI) exhibition. The airshow is “a first-class opportunity for Northern Ireland companies to promote their capabilities at a global gathering of key aerospace players,” Kennedy said, adding that the wider Bombardier Commercial Aircraft will also be showcasing its CRJ Series, along with product and service enhancements.

The Belfast and Casablanca sites have seen a significant increase in work from external customers in recent years, Kennedy said. Bombardier is committed to finding the right buyer for these sites, one that will operate responsibly and help the site achieve its full growth potential, she added.

The divestment announcement came after a series of redundancies in recent years, part of a company-wide productivity program to streamline the business, optimize its processes, and “lean out its cost structure,” said Kennedy. When asked if the Belfast facilities could potentially continue as a supplier to Bombardier even under new owners, she said, “We are, and will continue to be, an important supplier to Bombardier.”

The A220 is now in service with five airlines—Swiss, airBaltic, Korean Air, Delta Air Lines, and Air Tanzania—with Airbus receiving “very positive feedback from customers and passengers,” Kennedy added. In terms of other recent successes, she said the Belfast operation is working closely with Airbus on a thrust reverser work package for the A320neo.

Bombardier is the hub of the Northern Irish aerospace manufacturing sector and a major player in the wider economy. Of Bombardier’s roughly 800 suppliers in the UK and Ireland, more than a quarter are based in the region.

“Expertise that has flourished locally includes composites design and manufacturing, engineering design and stress, tooling design and manufacturing, advanced metal forming, and precision machining, as well as seating and interiors,” Kennedy added. The company’s supply chain—as well as the capabilities at its own facilities—will continue to play an important role after any divestment, she said. Indeed, “There is every possibility that the proposed sale will provide new opportunities for our Belfast operation.”

If the divestment announcement had been made five or 10 years ago, there would have been greater cause for concern for the local industry, said Paul Everitt, chief executive of industry body ADS. That’s because Bombardier’s Northern Irish supply chain has diversified somewhat in recent years, reducing its dependence on the Canadian company and working increasingly with other major OEMs. Still, he said this will be a very unsettling period for Bombardier employees and the Northern Irish sector as a whole.

“The challenge and opportunity for industry, government, and trade unions is to work together to ensure that we find the right owner for the business and that they invest appropriately to maximize the opportunity that is clearly there for the Belfast operation,” he said.