As the lockdown-induced Covid-19 outbreak starts to relax, I took my first trip out of Shanghai in the past two…
Trip Report: Mobile, Alabama’s Airbus Factory Tour
It’s the dream of any aviation geek to visit OEM factories for a behind-the-scenes look into the makings of the flying machines. Airbus’s factory tour in Mobile, Alabama is the latest addition to this amazing collection of experiences.
I finally got my chance to partake in the tour in March 2022. This report is a summary of what I found interesting while visiting. Due to the company’s no photo policy, I do not have any pictures from inside the factory.
Airbus has a long history in Mobile, Ala. The company opened an MRO center for military aircraft here back in 2009 before adding its commercial operations to the area in 2015. It started with a single Final Assembly Line for the Airbus A320 family. After Bombardier’s C Series program acquisition, the company added a new assembly line for the renamed Airbus A220 family in 2019. In May 2022, the European manufacturer announced plans to add a second A320 assembly line on its Alabama campus.
Flight Works Alabama (FWA) — a cooperative effort between the Airbus Foundation and the State of Alabama, conducts the touring operation. The organization started offering factory tours in November 2020.
At the moment, FWA offers tours about once a month. The company usually announces dates a few months in advance. The tours are generally on Saturdays and have a few starts from the morning to early afternoon. Since the tours do not operate on a set schedule, you need to check tour dates on FWA’s social media platforms and website. The operator did not explicitly request advanced reservations for visiting the factory. However, most slots will sell out, so you should book your ticket before your visit.
Tour ticket costs $23.50 each, which also includes admission to the exhibition. Visitors must be at least ten years old and wear closed-toe shoes on the day of the visit. FWA also requires a government-issued I.D. for anyone over the age of eighteen.
The plane manufacturer’s facility locates at Mobile International Airport – formerly known as Mobile Downtown Airport. Mobile Regional Airport is the closest commercial airport – about 30 minutes away from the visitor center. However, its flight options are very limited, and I could not find a connection to make a day trip work. Therefore I flew to New Orleans early in the morning and took a two-hour drive for the tour.
It’s worth noting that this is set to change. While Frontier Airlines has briefly served the Mobile Downtown Airport, no commercial passenger flight is available currently. However, Mobile County has announced its plans to build a new terminal at Mobile International Airport and move all commercial operations there. The new terminal could make visiting Airbus Mobile and the city of Mobile easier with its proximity to the Interstate highway. The county expects the transition to happen in late 2024.
The tour starts at a dedicated visitor center located at the north end of the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley. Although there is a bus stop right outside the visitor center, the bus runs on a very thin schedule, so driving is the best option for attending the tour.
The entrance hall features a mural showing the city of Mobile and a Sharklets display across from the check-in desk. You will enter what FWA calls an aviation experience center once you pass the check-in counter. The exhibition there certainly lives up to its name.
FWA did an excellent job in creating the interactive experience. In addition to the typical flight simulators, an outdoor drone area and several games demonstrate the logistics of Airbus’ operations. The center fared well in enlightening visitors about the fundamentals of flying. I found many people waiting in line to try the aerodynamic test simulator. The way one can grab a physical design and see the simulated results appears to be a great touch on engaging people.
Apart from introducing the science behind flying, the exhibition also highlights the manufacturing processes of an airplane. It showcased them through hands-on workstations, which demonstrated each procedure with real tools. Some highlights include wiring assembly troubleshooting, proper torque application, etc. They also have a fastener display section so good that I’d want to have one at home and use it as a catalog.
The experience center is also home to many actual aircraft parts you can get up close and even pick up. Beyond winglets and landing gears that you might find in other exhibitions, there is also a nicely prepped A320 bulkhead to show the behind-the-scenes construction of an aircraft. The display reminds me of the Boeing 747 in the Delta Flight Museum exhibit. Still, I think this one is better prepared to show the granular details closely tied to manufacturing exhibitions. Besides that, I found the window assembly display to be one of the most interesting because you can move all the parts and understand the build-up of an A320 window.
The only complaint I have against the space was that its gift shop is too small. I would not mind having a more extensive selection of Airbus swags. The few airplane models in the shop were also very fairly priced.
The tour is mainly similar to experiences offered at other aircraft manufacturing plants. A bus will take a group of people to the building, and there is also the no photography allowed rule.
Even though the facility is home to both A320 and A220 FALs, the A320 building is the only stop on this tour. Once the bus arrives at the production building, visitors need to walk up four flights to reach the viewing area.
Unlike Boeing’s famous moving production line, there are four discrete stages in the building. The first two stations are for structure joints, whereas the first joins the fwd and aft fuselage, while the second station joins the wing to the fuselage. The fourth station sees system integration for the aircraft then the aircraft gets its interior at the last station before rolling out of the factory. The stations travel unidirectionally, which is different from when I visited their Hamburg, Germany, factory in 2015.
Except for being stationary, the production line shares a lot of resemblance to its main competitor. While both companies have small office areas on the platforms and multiple rigs around the airplanes, the European company’s floor design looks cleaner and more simplified than its U.S. rival.
Since the touring operation is still fresh, the tour guides are not the most knowledgeable. Luckily, there are always enough aviation people in the group to answer questions raised by other visitors. Nonetheless, You’ll still learn a lot of interesting statistics and techniques about their production from the narration.
The entire tour is about one hour, including about 20 minutes to travel from and to the visitor center. On our way back, the tour guide mentioned they had received a lot of interest in A220 production line tours, and they were trying to work out a plan to provide that. However, there is no solid timeline for when that might be available.
One of the fun activities you can do around the factory is to see the special purpose vehicles that deliver the parts and spot the brand new airplanes.
As the name indicates, the FALs here are only responsible for assembling aircraft. The A320 fuselages arrive in the U.S. by ship, and the A220 fuselages come from Canada. You might be able to spot the Airbus Mobile Express cargo ship in the nearby Mobile bay. The vessel transports A320 components to the port once a month.
Eventually, parts for both types arrive at the factory by truck, which is mundane compared to Boeing’s Dreamlifter, Airbus’ Beluga, or even the train that carries Boeing 737 fuselages. Our guide did share one interesting fact to distinguish between the A320 and the A220 fuselages during the tour. A220 fuselages have covers over them while the A320s are exposed. You’ll be able to recognize the trucks next time you are in the area.
The area surrounding the factory is very accessible for planespotting. Planes are visible through the fences at a few parking lots along Aerospace Dr. During my visit, I saw a few Breeze Airway’s A220s on the flight line and an unpainted A220 in one of the open-air hangars nearby.
If you have time, check out Doyle Park on the west side of the complex. You might be able to spot a few test flights if you are lucky. The unique thing about Mobile’s operation is the aircraft carry foreign registries. The airplane normally uses temporary registration from the producing country in the manufacturer’s other FALs. For instance, Hamburg, Germany’s A320s start with D-, while Tianjin, China’s A320s begin with B-. However, all A320s produced in Mobile carry French registrations that start with F-, while all A220s have Canadian registrations that begin with C-.
Comparison to other tours
I have toured Boeing’s Everett, Wash, and Renton, Wash factories, as well as Airbus’ Hamburg factory. Each tour has its highlights, and here’s a short comparison of them.
The Boeing Evertt tour undoubtedly has the most variety among these tours, with Boeing 747, 767, 777 and 787 on display. The Airbus Hamburg tour packs the second most content showing A320 FAL and production for Airbus A320, A330 and A350 components. They used to include A380 as part of the tour. However, it was not part of my tour when I visited Hamburg. It could have resulted from me taking the English version and not the German version, but that shows some inconsistency between the tour offerings.
Boeing Renton and Airbus Mobile tours are comparable, except the U.S.-based manufacturer have a much larger space and a moving line. However, the moving line looks still because it was moving at a very slow speed.
With the exception of Airbus Hamburg, all the tours took place on a balcony. When I visited the European manufacturer’s German factory in 2015, we walked on the production floor, which made the airplanes all the more impressive. Boeing has offered floor tours at the Everett factory through events or organizations in the past. They are not-to-be-missed events.
FWA places a heavy emphasis on its educational outreach programs. Their offerings range from camps to certificates and career training programs.
A few workshop areas in the building offer equipment such as basic CNC machines and 3D printers. They also make outreach events a priority. I asked why there was no scheduled tour for the month of April when I visited and learned that they did not schedule tours to make room for camps at the center.
Their highlight program is FlightPath9. It provides a direct path to an apprenticeship at Airbus upon finishing the program. During my tour, there was even a FlightPath9 alumnus that landed a full-time job after completing his training. More information is available from FWA’s website.
Airbus and its partners created an overall awe-inspiring and engaging experience despite having a short and somewhat underwhelming tour. It is worth visiting if you are in the area, and I will come back if they make the A220 tour a reality.
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