Business Irish

Monday 23 September 2019

Big players unlikely to swoop on aviation firm - meaning no end to uncertainty in sight

For sale: The Bombardier plant in Belfast. Photo: PA
For sale: The Bombardier plant in Belfast. Photo: PA

Dr Esmond Birnie

Many people may feel the recent Bombardier experience in Northern Ireland has been death by a thousand cuts.

First redundancies, then the sale of control of the C Series to Airbus, and now Bombardier's announcement that it wants to sell its operations.

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Aircraft-making on 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 seems to have decided it needs to consolidate back to its business jet operations.

Across the four factories in Northern Ireland - Belfast, Newtownabbey, Dunmurry and Newtownards - the firm employs 3,600 people.

Jobs in Bombardier tend to tick all the right boxes in terms of Northern Ireland industrial strategy, in that levels of wages and productivity are above the Northern Ireland average.

The firm also contributes a considerable proportion of all the exports and R&D activity within total Northern Ireland manufacturing.

At the UK-wide level, it has been estimated that each job in an aerospace firm supports a further job elsewhere in the economy through supply chain work and additional consumer spending generated by aerospace workers.

By implication, Bombardier supports a total of 7,200 jobs in the regional economy.

We now have a seller but do we have a buyer? The global aviation market is dominated by the two biggest players - the American Boeing and the European Airbus. Boeing is probably preoccupied by the difficulties it faces following on from its Boeing 737 Max crashes.

In any case, in 2018 Boeing launched a partnership with the Brazilian aircraft firm Embraer. Whilst Airbus took control of the C Series, now A220, I suspect it would not want to buy up the rest of Bombardier in Northern Ireland.

By implication, the purchaser is more likely to be one of the smaller and more recent entrants to the aircraft industry and that is not without risk to the long-term sustainability of the Northern Ireland operation.

Spirit AeroSystems is one possibility. It is a spin-off from part of Boeing, its aerostructures division at Wichita in Kansas, together with some purchases from British Aerospace (BAE).

Closer to home, there is GKN. The roots of that firm go all the way back to iron-working in Industrial Revolution Wales but more recently it has moved into automotive and defence engineering.

Uncertainty, alas, is very likely to continue to afflict both the Belfast operation, and global aviation more generally.

Two things could work to the advantage of Bombardier-Shorts.

First, to the extent that either the UK government or any future devolved government is willing, there is the prospect of some subsidy or grant aid.

Second, attempts to shift aircraft manufacturing to very low-wage locations have not always prospered.

One of the selling points of the Northern Ireland factories will be the particular expertise of the workforce in complex technologies.

Dr Esmond Birnie is Senior Economist at Ulster University Business School

Irish Independent

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