Airbus hints at possible takeover of Spirit in Belfast

As loss-making aircraft manufacturer returns to pre-pandemic job levels, site lead Ciara Kennedy reveals ‘very strong order book’

Spirit Aerosystems
Ciara Kennedy (left), site lead at Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast, takes Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (centre) on a tour of the wing production facility in Belfast in January 2023. Included is Sir Michael Ryan, chairman of Spirit AeroSystems UK (Brian Lawless/PA)

The site lead at Spirit AeroSystems has told business leaders and political stakeholders that the Belfast manufacturer “has returned to pre-pandemic job levels” at 3,600 employees and is currently also onboarding 40 more apprentices and 30 graduates.

Ciara Kennedy, vice president & general manager of the company - which started life as Short Bros in 1909 making aircraft for the Wright Brothers - also revealed that Spirit has “a very strong back-order book”.

She was addressing 400 guests at the first CBI Northern Ireland annual lunch since the return of the Executive, an event at which her company was a strategic partner.

Her comments came just before it emerged that parts of the Kansas-headquartered Spirit AeroSystems business could come under new ownership from Airbus.

And that is likely to offer a degree of certainly for the Belfast workforce, given the already strong links between the two companies.

Spirit Aerosystems employ around 3,000 people across its Northern Ireland operation, which makes aircraft components including wings and fuselage.
Spirit Aerosystems makes aircraft components in Belfast such as wings, fuselages and nacelles for customers including Airbus

Both parties are understood to be exploring the idea of the French plane-maker taking over the plant in Belfast, which crucially makes the wings for the A220 (formerly known as the CSeries before Airbus renamed the programme after purchasing the business from Canada’s Bombardier in 2019).

Earlier this month Spirit confirmed that it was initially in discussions with Boeing about a potential acquisition.

But in a fresh twist, Airbus’s chief financial officer Thomas Toepfer, in an interview with CNBC, revealed that it instead may now buy some Spirit assets, saying he is “not happy” about the multitude of problems facing its US rival Boeing.

He added: “In light of the situation where Boeing has potentially the interest to take over Spirit, we could also imagine that some of the work packages could find their way to Airbus and we take them over.

“But that, quite frankly, is a discussion that’s in the very, very early stages.

“So it’s important for us that we have a stable relationship with Spirit, and over the last number of months we’ve worked with them to support their performance.”

Boeing is under intense pressure after a series of costly and reputationally damaging incidents.

A door plug on one of its 737 Max 9 aircraft blew out during an Alaska Airlines flight in January, over which it is now facing a lawsuit and federal investigation.

That came after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 involving the 737 Max, its bestselling aircraft, which dented public trust in the company and raised serious questions about its culture and quality control processes.

Indeed Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun confirmed on Monday that he will leave at the end of this year amid a deepening crisis over the firm’s safety record.

The head of its commercial airlines division will retire immediately, while its chairman will not stand for re-election.

During her address to the CBI lunch, Ms Kennedy - who succeeded Sir Michael Ryan into the top role at Spirit in Belfast - said her company has, over time, became “the main partner to all of our customers”.

Spirit AeroSystems
Ciara Kennedy, site lead at Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast, addresses the CBI annual lunch. Picture: Darren Kidd/Press Eye (Darren Kidd/Darren Kidd / Press Eye)

She added: “They cannot be without us. They count on us and all of our products and programmes. So in years to come our success at the Spirit site in Belfast is fully linked to their success.”

She said the dedication, innovation and commitment of Spirit’s employees in Belfast has helped bring many new technologies to the market beyond just the A220 wing.

“That innovation continues through more recent programme such as City Airbus EV Tall Wing and also our support of Airbus through the development and manufacture of the wing for its all-electric four-seat vertical take-off and landing aircraft prototype. We’re looking forward to its first flight later this year.”

Ms Kennedy added: “Our experience of the global marketplace has shown that innovation, entrepreneurship and investment are vital ingredients of successful competition, and as we look to a more sustainable future, our continued focus is nurturing long-term growth for Spirit and Northern Ireland.”

However, accounts for the Belfast-based operation, which still reports as Short Brothers on Companies House, show it has not been profitable since 2016.

The latest report filed for the business show it registered a pre-tax loss of $227 million (£180m) for the year to December 31 2022, bringing its total pre-tax losses since 2019 to almost three quarters of a billion US dollars.