Thompson Aero Seating is a huge success story for Northern Ireland’s aerospace sector, cornering a fair chunk of the market for business and premium cabin seats on airliners around the world.
Gary Montgomery, CEO, told AIN that founder James Thompson was “a bit of an inventor” who used to work for B/E Aerospace (which acquired Aircraft Furnishing Limited for £7 million (US$9.25 million) in 1993. B/E is now part of Rockwell Collins). Initially, Thompson got paid for work on Emirates A380s, based on intellectual property rights for his design. What he offered was a “lie-flat” seat design that was staggered so density wasn’t compromised. Work for Delta followed and then British Midland (then part of Lufthansa). “Delta helped us a lot, as when they went to Boeing to buy aircraft they said they wanted Thompson seats,” he recalled.
Montgomery said that when he joined in 2009, there were issues with the seats that needed sorting out, but once this was done the company continued to get sales, with the likes of Swiss and American Airlines placing orders. Montgomery “went out and found an investor, a local guy” to help fund growth. “He was absolutely what the business needed.” The firm was sold to China’s AVIC in December 2016.
The AVIC acquisition tied in with orders from China Southern and China Eastern, while Malaysia Airlines, Philippine Airlines, and others also came along as Asia opened up. On the day AIN visited Thompson’s factory in Portadown, a team from EVA Air of Taiwan was visiting “looking at their new seat.” Meanwhile, JetBlue has fitted approximately 40 aircraft with Thompson seats in an order “that opened the door at Airbus for us,” Montgomery said. “We have a full team in Airbus and we are building one in Seattle.”
“All the airlines want something different,” Montgomery noted, "The big seat manufacturers offer no differentiation and long lead times. The market wanted customization, so we offer it.”
At present all its seats are for twin-aisle Airbus and Boeing types, although he said “there’s a lot of interest in the C Series” from entities exploring all-business-class seating.
“We’ll sell around 3,000 seats this year and make around 4,000, including test seats. In 2011 we had 18 people and now we have over 1,000,” said Montgomery. “And the order book is now over five years, with 2019 full and we’re nearly full for 2020.” On the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 the company has won 20 percent of orders for seating, he estimated.
He added that the company has started on plans to build a new factory in Northern Ireland, allowing it to go up to 8,000 seats a year. “We use a lot of local suppliers. Kane’s does quite a lot of work for us. We must have around 20 machining shops we’re working with.”
The current industrial footprint covers 20,000 sq m across four sites located in the Portadown and Banbridge areas and includes “full design, engineering, manufacturing, and R&D capabilities.”
The company stated, “Highlights from 2017 included delivery to Delta Airlines of the new Vantage XL Suite on Thompson’s first Airbus A350. The ‘all-suite cabin’ with sliding privacy doors was an industry first, winning the Crystal Cabin Award at the Hamburg Aircraft Interiors Expo Hamburg. The same year our launch customer for the Boeing B787, Qantas, took delivery of their first Dreamliner with their fully customized version of the Vantage XL."