Uncertainty for Belfast aerospace workers as Airbus takes over part of Spirit operation

Following Boeing deal, workplace in Belfast will be split, ‘meaning loss of economies of scale’

AirBaltic currently already has 44 A220-300s in operation. The Latvian flag carrier has now increased its total order with Airbus to 80 A220s.
Belfast makes the wings and fuselages for the Airbus A220 jet, seen here by Latvian flag carrier AirBaltic

Hundreds of workers at one of the north’s biggest manufacturing firms are fearing for their futures after Boeing agreed to buy Spirit AeroSystems in a deal valuing the airline supplier at $4.7 billion (£3.5bn).

But the purchase will mean that Boeing’s rival Airbus will take control of the part of the Spirit business in Belfast which makes wings and fuselage for its A220 jet.

And that could mean the workload at Spirit - formally known as Shorts and then Bombardier - may be split between operations for Airbus and other customers including Bombardier and Rolls-Royce.

It is understood that around 1,400 of the 3,600 Spirit staff in Belfast work on non-Airbus contracts.

There is uncertainty for that part of the Belfast business, which Spirit has indicated that it may sell off separately.

Invest NI says it has been collaborating closely with the Kansas-based company to explore all avenues for sustaining its Northern Ireland operations and employment, adding that it is “committed to supporting Spirit AeroSystems in seeking the best outcome the workforce based here”.

A spokesman said: “We recognise the uncertainty this news brings to the staff of Spirit AeroSystems and acknowledge the impact it may have on many individuals and families.

“As a cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s aerospace sector, this agreement with Airbus will ensure it maintains its intellectual capability, skills, and manufacturing capacity.

“Spirit AeroSystems’ Northern Ireland operation offers an engineering centre of excellence with a highly skilled, adaptable workforce. We will support the company to promote this overseas and it has our full support as it navigates this next phase.”

First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “Spirit AeroSystems is a major employer in the north, recognised across the globe for its engineering and manufacturing excellence and locally for its contribution to the local economy, employment and supply chain development. We are all committed to working together to ensure the legacy of this long-standing company continues for many years.”

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly added: “Shorts is a significant part of Northern Ireland’s history and also of aviation history. We are committed to working with everyone, including the UK Government, Airbus and Boeing, to ensure the company and its many employees here continue to play a vital role in this global industry.”

And Economy Minister Conor Murphy said: “I have been engaging with the company and union on the acquisition and will work with all key stakeholders to ensure that the future status of the highly skilled workforce is protected.”

Unions have previously voiced their fierce opposition to a carve-up of the business.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “The livelihoods of workers must not be put at risk as corporate giants carve up the future of this company.

“It is vital that all workers are quickly given cast iron guarantees over their futures.

Michael Ryan, vice president and general manager of Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast
Spirit’s UK chairman Sir Michael Ryan outside the Belfast manufacturing plant

“Unite will leave no stone unturned in ensuring that the future of this highly skilled and dedicated workforce at Spirit is fully protected.”

Spirit’s UK chairman Sir Michael Ryan has previously to stakeholders warning that “any dismantling of the business would be extremely detrimental to the long-term future of the Belfast business, and by extension, the region’s aerospace industry”.

He said that while the separation of physical buildings was possible, the company’s structure and ecosystem was “integrally linked” and gave it “economies of scale, providing technological synergies, skills and flexibility”.

Spirit has been in Northern Ireland since 2019, when it bought Bombardier, ending a prolonged period of uncertainty for the workforce.

Earlier this year Spirit said it would invest in the Belfast factory and hire more staff as it ramps up production for the A220.

Airbus says it wants to step up the production rate of the A220 by 50% in 2024, with another increase in 2025.