GKN, Spirit lead race to invest in Airbus UK plant

LE BOURGET, France, June 20 Wed Jun 20, 2007 10:18am EDT

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LE BOURGET, France, June 20 (Reuters) - Britain's GKN Aerospace (GKN.L) and U.S. aircraft fuselage maker Spirit AeroSystems (SPR.N) have emerged as front-runners to invest in Airbus wings production at Filton in western England, industry officials at the Paris air show said on Wednesday.

They are among four companies described as well-positioned to pick up stakes in the first three European factories being fully or partially sold as part of the company's restructuring.

Others include France's Latecoere (LAEP.PA), which is bidding to buy the nose and cockpit sub-assembly factory in Meaulte, France, and OHB (OHBG.DE) unit MT Aerospace, formerly known as MAN Technologie, which wants to invest in Nordenham, a German factory responsible for fuselage shells.

"There are at least two credible bidders for Filton," a source familiar with the sale process said. Two sources said GKN and Spirit were leading the competition to invest in Filton and had also expressed interest in other European sites.

Investment bank Merrill Lynch is advising Airbus on this and other parts of a restructuring plan involving 10,000 job cuts.

Airbus is trying to stabilise itself following A380 output delays and cash shortages triggered by a weak dollar.

Airbus says Filton, Meaulte and Nordenham will be guaranteed contracts to build its future A350 XWB, due to enter service in 2013, and that investors will be expected to pay for high-tech composite research in exchange for full or partial ownership.

Airbus has said it will pick a partner for exclusive talks for each of the three plants by the end of July.

A second stage will involve the sale of three further factories but without A350 work being bundled into the deals.

In total, 14 companies have expressed interest in buying stakes in the six factories up for sale, Airbus officials say.

These include four companies bidding for Filton, which employs 6,000 people.

Airbus has said wings production will remain in Britain after the company's position in the country was thrown into doubt when BAE Systems BA.L sold its 20 percent stake in Airbus last year, transferring full ownership to parent EADS EAD.PA.

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