Car Jobs Misery, but Aerospace Success Gives Hope

20 February 2019

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Two things happened in the last week which at first sight might seem unconnected but, taken together, confirm that the future of engineering manufacture and assembly in the UK lies with aerospace.

On Thursday Tom Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, signalled the end of the A380, the largest commercial aircraft ever built.

A few days later, Honda announced the closure of its manufacturing plant in Swindon with the loss of 3,500 jobs.

The Japanese carmaker’s decision to pull out of the UK, and to switch production to Japan, has been interpreted as the beginning of the end of a symbiotic relationship that has existed between the two countries since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher lured Nissan to Sunderland after convincing the company’s then bosses that Britain was an ideal production gateway to Europe.

If we’re to take Honda at its word, its decision to quit Britain was not prompted by Brexit but rather was in response to changing global trends in car manufacture and demand.

With a new investment round pending, Honda is planning to switch the bulk of its resources into producing electric cars and the biggest mass markets for those will not be in Europe but in North America and the Far East.

If that’s the case, then a golden age of motor manufacture in the UK may be coming to an end. The days of British carmakers producing their own world-beating models are long gone but the UK has, over the past three decades, been home to a highly skilled and efficient workforce capable of producing successful fleets of foreign owned cars, notably for Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota and, of course, Honda.

The same can be said for aerospace, with thousands of Britons employed in production and assembly of commercial aircraft and their components in plants across the country.

While UK workers are involved in the manufacture of the A380 at Airbus and at Rolls Royce in Derby, which produces engines for the aircraft, Enders' announcement was not seen as a death knell for the industry. 

Airbus has 13,000 workers in its UK division, mainly at two major sites in Bristol and Broughton, North Wales, while supporting an estimated 140,000 jobs in the wider UK economy.

The Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier employs 5,000 people in Northern Ireland, while Cobham, which supplies refuelling equipment and communications systems, employs more than 12,000 people.

GE Aviation Systems, a division of General Electric, has 5000 workers in the UK and British owned GKN Aerospace - which has a carbon composite centre of excellence on the Isle of Wight - employs 5,000 people in the UK and the US.

For many people, the jewel in the crown of British aerospace remains Rolls Royce, which has 50,000 employees including 23,000 in the UK, mainly at its factories in Bristol and in Derby where it produces the Trent 700 engine for the Airbus A330, the Trent900 for the A380, the Trent 1000 for the Boeing 787 and the Trent XWB for the Airbus A350 XWB.

These are among the most important companies we have in the UK, not only because of their world class expertise but their longevity.

In the future we may well rely on fusion power plants; our cars will run on electricity and many of today’s incurable illnesses will be prevented by gene-editing. But in 50 years’ time,  the expectation is that aircraft will still look and behave much as they do today.

Commercial planes will still fly at between 550mph and 600mph for the very simple reason that, operating at those speeds, they are most efficient and economic.

The dream of mass supersonic travel - faster than 768 mph – ended in 2003 with the grounding of Concorde. Those super-sleek aircraft capable of flying at 1,300 and cutting transatlantic journey times to two-and-a-half hours, were just too expensive to operate.

While we have seen the emergence of a few ambitious supersonic start-ups, operating business-style jets for wealthy executives, commercial flying for the masses is unlikely to change much in the next few decades because the current paradigm works, is profitable and it’s safe.

Unlike with cars, battery powered commercial aircraft are still a long way off and so the best airlines can hope for now is to have planes that are more fuel-efficient. That’s already happening, largely by making fuselages lighter by using composite materials.

As well as confronting financial challenges, airlines also have ever tougher environmental standards to meet and supersonic air travel is just too polluting to be acceptable to governments.

Small, battery-powered taxi aircraft are at an experimental stage and could be a reality within a decade, but they’re unlikely to be useful for anything other than local travel between cities.

In the end, whether aircraft run on fuel or massive batteries that sit in their bellies, it's likely they’ll be flying at the same speeds they've been doing since the mid-20th century and, unlike in the car industry, that’s good news for British manufacture. 

 

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