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Esmond Birnie

Bombardier news helps increase certainty for the local workforce

Esmond Birnie


After several trying years and repeated rounds of job losses, some good news relating to Northern Ireland's largest aircraft manufacturing firm Bombardier, now becoming Spirit AeroSystems.

There are four Bombardier factories here - Belfast, Newtownabbey, Dunmurry and Newtownards.

One of the important activities is building the wings for what was the Bombardier C Series passenger jets. This is an innovative aircraft which, crucially in times of uncertain oil prices and environmental concerns, has low rates of fuel consumption.

In 2017 the Canadian owners of Bombardier sold most of its ownership of the C Series to the UK/European conglomerate Airbus, which then renamed the plane the A220. Bombardier has now sold its remaining stake to Airbus for £455m.

This coincides with a new order for the jet, including 50 for the Nigerian Green Africa Airways. Very significantly, that airline had originally been considering the Boeing 737Max.

Yesterday's announcement is therefore indicative of the way the market has shifted in the wake of the two air crashes involving the Boeing 737Max.

This order is especially good news for the Northern Ireland operation because last year it was agreed that the American firm Spirit AeroSystems would buy the Bombardier factories. That Kansas-based firm, which originally grew out of Boeing, saw the Belfast acquisition as a step towards increasing its sales to Airbus. That strategy is now working.

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There is a long history behind yesterday's news. Aircraft making by the shores of Belfast Lough began in the late 1930s. In the 1940s the English firm Shorts relocated all its operations to Northern Ireland.

Like the shipyard, Shorts in Belfast combined considerable technical virtuosity, such as pioneering vertical take-off, with an increasing appetite for subsidies from the Belfast and London governments.

The business was under state ownership for many years but then privatised to the Canadian firm in 1989. After 30 years Bombardier decided they needed to consolidate back to their business jet operations and railroad manufacturing.

Yesterday's news will increase certainty in the Belfast aircraft factories and allows a further chapter in the story to unfold.