American Airlines orders premium seats - direct from Kilkeel
American Airlines - the biggest carrier in the US - takes delivery of new premium economy seats made in Northern Ireland later this year, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The company launches its first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in August - featuring seats made by B/E Aerospace, a global company employing 800 people in Kilkeel.
While the exact seating plan for the new 787-9 is a closely-guarded secret, its understood there will be 21 premium economy seats on every craft.
And with a total of 22 on order, B/E Aerospace would be making a total of 1,386 for American Airlines. B/E Aerospace also confirmed last night that it would be making seats for all three seating classes on Amercian Airlines' new A350s.
David Thomas, the airline's regional director for the UK/Ireland, Middle East and Africa, told the Belfast Telegraph it started working with B/E Aerospace after problems with former supplier Zodiac Aerospace.
American Airlines is the first US airline to introduce a full premium economy product.
B/E Aerospace in Kilkeel has made economy and business-class seating for airlines including British Airways, Emirates, Qatar, Air France, Qantas, Continental, United, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, and Cathay Pacific.
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Mr Thomas also said air passenger duty is "stifling" the travel industry in Northern Ireland.
And he said US Airways - now part of American Airlines following a merger last year - had actively considered Northern Ireland for a route.
American Airlines has nine US hubs and carried 201,249,000 passengers in 2015. From Dublin, it flies to JFK, Chicago, Philadelphia and Charlotte and from Shannon to Philadelphia.
It has an agreement with British Airways and its fellow IAG airlines to share access across their networks as part of the One World programme - and he said that arrangement could be extended to cover Aer Lingus, now a sister company of British Airways after the Irish airline was taken over by IAG.
He said the company looked at opportunities in Northern Ireland but added: "I think there are some things that stifle demand here such as the APD and that's a problem across the UK.
"The demand out of Dublin is much greater because there's no tax and we also have pre-clearance. I think the UK needs to look at aviation in a bit of a different way to promote demand rather than stifle it.
"We have investigated Belfast and will continue to do so. Right now there's no plans, but that could change.
And he said his main concern with APD was that it was not ploughed back into the industry. "If you're going to charge a tax back into the aviation system, that's okay with us, but when you have such a large tax that stifles demand and isn't used for aviation, that is different."
And Mr Thomas said the airline was concerned about the implications of a Brexit but was taking no stance on it. "It's really difficult to say because there are so many unknowns. People speculate it won't affect trade and others that it will.
"There's no hard facts. Our business revolves around the movement of business and cargo.
"We are a little nervous about what will happen and will it stifle growth. Will we have to make adjustments to fly cargo over the UK? Will there suddenly be a border here in Ireland?
"We have so many employees from various parts of Europe, including Irish employees from the Republic employed in London.
"That will be complicated - will we need visas, work permits?"
He said that American Airlines may consider the C Series from Bombardier at some point.
"It will be interesting to see how reliable and how comfortable it is - because for us, those are the two main things. But it's still fairly new and there's just not enough of them out there to know," he said.
Its pipeline of new orders was already stretching out into 2019, with firm orders from Boeing and Airbus and options for after 2019.
"We want small to medium sized business to know that we have some great product for them," said Mr Thomas. "We have two salespeople on the ground in Northern Ireland, so it's not always easy to reach everyone."