The timing was perfect. A week before the start of the important industry trade fair ILA in Berlin, Airbus invited to its plant in Finkenwerder to present an aircraft to the specialist public that should once again demonstrate the current superiority of the Europeans over their US rivals.
In bright sunshine, the first A321 XLR took off on its first test flight. Hundreds, if not thousands, of workers left their jobs and stepped out of the factory halls in their yellow fluorescent vests to witness the moment.
When the French test pilot Thierry Diez pressed the thrust lever and the twin-engine jet rose into the blue sky over Hamburg, applause erupted, even managers in ties and collars cheered enthusiastically. A moment of triumph in which no one wanted to think about the things that are causing concerns and trouble at Airbus right now.
When a newly developed aircraft takes off for the first time, after years of development and countless tests on the computer, “faces reality for the first time”, as program director Gary O’Donnell later put it at the press conference, then that is always a special moment for the designers .
An economic triumph mingled with the engineering pride this Wednesday in Hamburg. Because with the new jet, Airbus is opening up a whole new market segment in which the competition will stand empty-handed in the long run. While Boeing struggles with itself and seems to have forgotten how to build aircraft, Airbus keeps flying away.
Externally, apart from the type designation, the new jet looks little different from previous aircraft in the A320 family, which has been flying for 28 years. The specialty lies in the acronym XLR. This stands for “Extra Long Range” and thus sums up the unique selling proposition.
Airbus has equipped the aircraft with a 13,000 liter auxiliary tank in the plane’s belly. In order to get the extra mass in the air, the aircraft had to be rebuilt and made lighter in many places. That seems to have worked.
Together with optional additional tanks in the luggage compartment, the twin-jet engine, which was actually designed for short and medium-haul routes, can stay in the air for up to eleven hours and fly up to 8700 kilometers. That’s enough for flights across the Atlantic or to Asia, which are otherwise flown with wide-bodied jets with two aisles.
The A321 XLR now offers airlines a way to more economically connect long-haul flights not only from the major hubs, but also to and from airports with lighter passenger traffic with direct flights in single-aisle aircraft. The demand seems great.
Even before the first test flight, Airbus has more than 500 orders, including from US airlines such as American and United. The first machines are to be delivered in 2024 and will be largely built in Hamburg.
And here the problem begins. The jubilant mood at Airbus is mixed with the anxious question of who should actually build the super plane. There aren’t enough people for that.
For group works council chief Holger Junge, the new Airbus model is symptomatic of the upswing, but also of the aircraft manufacturer’s growing pains after cuts and job cuts in the past. Airbus cut production during the Corona crisis and cut thousands of jobs worldwide, from 78,500 to 73,500 in 2021 alone.
Skilled workers are now desperately needed again. At the IG Metall coast, which also looks after the northern German Airbus locations, there is talk of a restart after the crisis. Since 2019, over ten percent of jobs have been eliminated in the aerospace industry in the north. Now comes the positive thrust reversal. “It’s buzzing like crazy,” says Junge, “we have a huge increase in production.”
Production of the A320 family, i.e. models with a central aisle, will be increased from 43 per month in 2021 to 54 this year. By 2023 there should already be 67 aircraft and then even 75 aircraft per month.
Added to this is the special feature that versions such as the new A321 XLR have a more complex interior, with entertainment electronics for the passengers. So there is more work per plane and the need for personnel is also increasing, said Junge at a press conference by IG Metall Coast.
At the beginning of the year, Airbus spoke of 6,000 new jobs worldwide, but this does not yet take into account the expansion to 75 aircraft of the small series once a month in the future. In Hamburg alone there are currently around 1,000 vacancies to be filled in the coming months.
There are also problems finding enough experienced staff at other Airbus production sites around the world. Fixed positions instead of temporary work and good working conditions are also important. Production is still running as planned, but “we’re running everything on edge,” says Junge. It is also crucial that the suppliers can keep up with the pace.
Airbus needs even more staff in the medium term, because the current planning is not yet based on the target of 75 aircraft of the small series per month. The medium-term personnel planning has not yet been worked out. Not only Airbus is extremely optimistic about the future.
In a study of the aerospace industry, the Bremen agency for structure and personnel development commissioned by IG Metall came to the conclusion that companies nationwide are expecting a capacity utilization of a good 98 percent in the coming year, after 74 percent in 2020. Last year 60 percent of the larger companies in the industry in northern Germany already had problems filling vacancies. Qualified staff is very difficult to find.
During the test flight on Wednesday, the lack of personnel was not a problem. After a few curves and loops over the North Sea, the test crew brought the machine back to Finkenwerder without any noticeable problems and touched down safely here.
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