Pandemic forces Boeing, Airbus to shut down aircraft plants

A large white plane gets loaded with boxes of face masks.

Aircraft manufacturers Boeing Co. and Airbus SE are suspending production at more assembly plants to protect workers from the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 1.3 million people and claimed nearly 76,000 lives around the world.

On Monday, Boeing [NYSE: BA] announced it will temporarily suspend all operations at its 787 plant in North Charleston, South Carolina. The move comes two weeks after the company paused operations at its plants in Washington state, where Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order in mid-March. 

Boeing’s decision in South Carolina coincided with Gov. Henry McMaster’s belated order for people to avoid public contact. After holding out against guidance from public health officials to lockdown the populace to prevent community spread, McMaster finally relented, but his order was watered down compared with most other states because it provides exceptions for all types of work, visiting family and recreating outdoors.

“It is our commitment to focus on the health and safety of our teammates while assessing the spread of the virus across the state, its impact on the reliability of our global supply chain and that ripple effect on the 787 program,” said Brad Zaback, vice president and general manager of the 787 program, in a statement. “We are working in alignment with state and local government officials and public health officials to take actions that best protect our people.”

Employees who can will work remotely and those that can’t will receive paid leave for 10 working days of the suspension, double the company policy, Boeing said. After that, workers have the option to use a combination of vacation and sick leave or file for emergency state unemployment benefits. 

 Boeing said it will use the time to conduct enhanced cleaning of the site.

The aerospace giant also indefinitely extended its suspension of operations in Washington, which was initially scheduled to last two weeks.

Similarly, European rival Airbus said it is suspending activity at its plant in Mobile, Alabama, where the A220 regional jet and the A320 mid-size aircraft are produced. Production was also halted at assembly plants in Bremen and Stade, Germany.

Airbus said the moves were made because government restrictions are limiting available manpower and there are high inventory levels. 

The Bremen site will be closed through April 27, while Stade will shut down through April 11. The U.S.shutdown is expected to last until April 29, but certain activities such as receipt and control of materials and aircraft maintenance will continue. 

“All ongoing work in Bremen and Stade in Germany and Mobile, Alabama, will be done in adherence to the required hygiene measures and social distancing,” Airbus said.

During the past two weeks, Airbus paused production and assembly work in France and Spain for four days to implement stringent health and safety measures. Production and assembly in France has resumed gradually since March 23. Commercial aircraft wing production operations in the U.K. and commercial aircraft production activities in Spain and Canada have been temporarily paused, reflecting stock levels and the latest government restrictions.

Meanwhile, Airbus continues to purchase and supply millions of face masks from China using its own aircraft to make deliveries. Most of the masks are being donated to Airbus home countries – France, Germany, Spain and the U.K.

An Airbus flight test crew landed an A350-1000 test plane in Toulouse, France, on Sunday with four million masks picked up in Tianjin, China, Airbus said. Two previous relief missions were performed with an A330-800 and an A330 multi-role tanker transport. Airbus has also deployed an A400 military transport and its Beluga fleet – which normally ferries large aircraft components and oversized cargo to its manufacturing plants – to transport shipments of masks between its Europe sites.

During the pandemic, Airbus continues to support aircraft customers that are operating aircraft. 

Company employees are also helping to design and manufacture ventilators to help patients suffering from the respiratory illness and 3D-printed visors for protecting hospital workers from infection.