* Company changed name to Airbus Group from EADS
* Alabama plant could boost production above 4 planes/month
* Airlines opting for narrowbodies with more seats
By Karen Jacobs
ATLANTA, June 17 (Reuters) - Airbus Group’s recent name change is enhancing how the European weapons and planemaker is perceived, particularly among U.S. government customers, a company executive said on Tuesday.
The company formerly known as EADS announced the rebranding last summer in a bid to improve its corporate image, and shareholders approved the name change in late May. The new name matched the company’s legal title to its flagship brand and commercial plane unit, Airbus.
“Already, it’s made an impact, particularly on Capitol Hill,” Allan McArtor, chairman and chief executive of Airbus Group Inc, the U.S. unit of the European company, said in an interview at the AIAA Aviation and Aeronautics Forum in Atlanta.
“To be truthful, it was very difficult to explain European Aeronautic Defense and Space (EADS),” he said. “It’s hard to build confidence in that brand.”
The rebranding of military units to Airbus Defense and Space and Airbus Helicopters has helped improve the image of the defense operations, McArtor said. “We think that we’ll be able to tell a better story and create and maintain the confidence of the government customers for our products.”
McArtor said Airbus is still looking to expand its share of the U.S. defense market by selling its helicopters, explosive detection technologies and other products.
Airbus, which competes with Boeing Co for plane sales, has made inroads in the United States recently with orders from big commercial carriers including American Airlines Group Inc and Delta Air Lines Inc as well as smaller airlines including JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines.
The company is building its first U.S. assembly line in Mobile, Alabama, for the A320 family of narrowbody aircraft. That facility is expected to employ about 1,000 people and deliver its first plane to JetBlue in 2016.
McArtor said the Mobile plant is still expected to produce four planes a month by 2017. He cited the ability to ramp up production to eight planes a month, but said that decision would be market-driven. Recent job postings for 25 positions in Mobile attracted 2,400 applications, he added.
Airlines “are probably not buying our airplane because of Mobile, but they love the idea of taking delivery from Mobile,” McArtor said, citing feedback from Delta and JetBlue.
He said many carriers have lately been opting for the A321 model, which typically carries 185 passengers, over the A320, which typically seats 150.
“The demand for seats is growing and slots are still constrained at airports so airlines are more interested in flying a larger variant of that airplane.” He added that “almost every one of our 320 customers” has expressed a desire to convert orders to the A321.
Editing by Matthew Lewis