Thousands of Bombardier workers in the North can "finally breathe a sigh of relief" that the US group Spirit AeroSystems has agreed a deal to acquire Bombardier's Northern Ireland operations which employ 3,600 people.
It has been an anxious six months for Bombardier workers in the North, against the backdrop of growing Brexit uncertainty, since its Canadian parent put it on the market.
But there was widespread relief on Thursday that Spirit AeroSystems emerged as the successful bidder.
It may have been business as usual on the factory floors across Bombardier’s three sites in the North but there was a cheerier mood than in recent months.
"After years of job losses and cost-cutting and devastating uncertainty, Bombardier's skilled workers in Belfast finally have cause for hope," Alan Malcolm, senior steward with the GMB in Belfast said.
Neither Bombardier or Spirit AeroSystems has yet confirmed if all of the 3,600 strong workforce will automatically transfer over as part of the $1.1 billion (€990 million) deal, which is expected to be completed in the first half of 2020. It secures the future of the Belfast, Moroccan and Dallas plants.
The Belfast operation makes wings for Airbus SE's A220 jetliner, an aircraft that cash-strapped Bombardier developed before handing control last year to the European planemaker.
Michael Ryan, chief operating officer of aerostructures, Bombardier Aviation, said it was great news that Spirit AeroSystems had “entered into a definitive agreement” with the Canadian group to acquire the Bombardier business.
“As we prepare to close the transaction, we will update employees and other stakeholders when appropriate. We have no further details to share at this time,” he stated.
But Belfast-born Mr Ryan, who has played a key role in Bombardier since the Canadian group acquired Short Brothers in 1989, also said that the Northern Ireland operation was looking forward to “an exciting future”.
“Through this agreement with Bombardier, we are delighted that Spirit, a global, tier-one aerostructure manufacturer and supplier, has recognised our unique offering and growth potential.
“We are immensely grateful to Bombardier for 30 years of development and investment in Belfast, and more recently in Casablanca and Dallas, enabling us to advance our capabilities and skills to world-class levels,” Mr Ryan added.
One of the biggest fears since the for-sale sign went up in May was that Bombardier, which is one of the North’s largest private-sector employers, would sell its operations in Northern Ireland to a buyer that would then break up the business.
As Bombardier continued to seek a buyer concerns grew in the North that Brexit might dampen interest and jeopardise jobs, particularly since the planemaker had previously warned that it believed its “competitiveness and future success is better served if the UK remains part of the EU”.
In Belfast on Thursday morning there was acknowledgement from management, workers, unions and business leaders that Spirit AeroSystems, which designs and builds aerostructures for both commercial and defence customers, was an “excellent fit” for Bombardier’s Northern Ireland operations.
The Kansas-headquartered group’s enthusiasm for what, its president and chief executive officer Tom Gentile, described as Belfast’s “impressive position in business jet fuselage production, in addition to the world-acclaimed fully integrated A220 composite wing” has also been seen as an important vote of confidence in its future.
Although union leaders in the North believe the acquisition of the business by Spirit is “positive” they also remain keen to see the “devil in the detail” when it comes to the deal.
In the meantime Susan Fitzgerald, Unite’s regional co-ordinating officer, said Bombardier’s workers would now able to put the “uncertainty behind them” and begin to look forward to working with an industry-leading organisation.
Unite has praised Bombardier for taking on board its call to be a “responsible seller” by selling the entire aerostructures production to a company with an “excellent track record in aerospace rather than a short-termist hedge fund.”
Ms Fitzgerald said: “Bombardier’s workers in Northern Ireland have a world-class skills base and we hope that Spirt AeroSystems will invest in Northern Ireland and in their workforce to keep Northern Ireland at the forefront of the aerospace manufacturing sector”.
Ms Fitzgerald said the union was planning to organise an early meeting with the Kansas group’s senior executives to “ensure that our members’ interests are kept to the forefront in this change of ownership”.
The GMB said it was also eager to speak to Spirit Aerosystems management as soon as possible to “get assurances on jobs, terms and conditions and pensions”.
Both unions hope that the American group will also maintain the extensive supplier base which Bombardier has grown and nurtured in the North and which also employ thousands of people outside of Bombardier’s factory gates.
According to Bombardier Belfast currently has a European chain totalling around 900 approved suppliers.
Out of these 800 are based in the UK and Ireland and in 2017 the value of contracts awarded to these firms was worth around £200 million. There are at least 50 companies that supply Bombardier with components for the A220 aircraft alone.
Overall Angela McGowan, director of the Confederation of British Industry, believes the agreement by Spirit AeroSystems to acquire Bombardier’s Northern Ireland operations is “positive news for its workforce and local communities”.
“Spirit’s commitment to growing Bombardier’s Belfast-based business over the long term, and supporting the Northern Irish economy is warmly welcome,” Ms McGowan added.
Meanwhile ADS, the UK industry body which represents 1,000 UK firms in the aerospace, defence, security and space sectors, said the Kansas group’s acquisition could also help the North’s aerospace sector to expand.
ADS chief executive Paul Everitt said: “Spirit AeroSystems is one of the largest aerostructures businesses in the world, and this deal sees them significantly expand their operations in the UK, while also opening up new opportunities for the Belfast facility to grow its business with the US and elsewhere.
“With the future of the operations assured, the exceptional workforce at the Belfast facility will now be able to continue to use their world-class expertise and skills as an integral part of the aerospace industry.”