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Sun 27 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Fly me to the boom

After Boeing stole the limelight at last week’s Dubai airshow with US$17 billion worth of orders, Europe’s aviation tsar Noël Forgeard tells Rhys Jones how Airbus plans to bounce back as the global air war heats up.

|~|Forgeard-200.jpg|~|CONFIDENT: Forgeard claims Airbus has well-beaten arch-rival Boeing in the battle for plane orders over the last five years.|~|Noël Forgeard isn’t keen on Boeing. In fact, you get the feeling that the co-CEO of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) — the parent firm of aircraft manufacturer Airbus — isn’t too fond of anything American. “People shouldn’t listen too much to what the Americans say,” exclaims Forgeard, referring to the long-running feud between Europe and the US over airplane development subsidies.

In 1992, the US and the European Union (EU) signed a deal, which set restraints on the amount of launch aid Airbus could receive from European governments. Today, Boeing contends that since Airbus controls over 50% of the world’s commercial aviation market, the company is healthy enough to fly solo. Forgeard, however, just loves disagreeing with the Americans and unsurprisingly sees things in a completely different light.

“Boeing and other officials say we’re subsidised — but they’re wrong,” the diminutive Frenchman emphatically states. “Airbus receives refundable launch loans, which we carefully repay with interest year after year. What Boeing doesn’t tell anyone is that they are the ones who receive subsidies and they get them from various sources,” he adds.

At the time the 1992 agreement was drawn up, it was in the interests of airlines worldwide to ensure that a viable competitor to Boeing’s monopoly was not allowed to fail. The accord allowed up to a third of the cost of an aircraft development programme to be met through government loans which should be fully repaid within 17 years with interest and royalties. The loans are held at a minimum interest rate equal to the cost of government borrowing plus 0.25% — well below market rates.

These days, however, Airbus is extremely profitable and last year, the Toulouse-based company overtook Boeing for the first time, grabbing over half the world market in aircraft sales. While Boeing has produced just one new aircraft over the past decade, Airbus rolled out five — a feat only possible, Boeing charges, because of the launch aid.

As a result, the US took a case to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in a bid to end Airbus’ subsidies and void the 1992 agreement. But despite claims from Boeing’s Seattle base that Airbus needs the public loans to remain a force in the commercial aviation game, Forgeard is surprisingly calm about it all.

“It is clear that the US wants to get out of the 1992 agreement and we are very open to reaching a new deal if it creates a level playing field between Boeing and ourselves,” he says. “The Americans have filed something with the WTO but we’re not worried because we think we have better grounds than them anyway. But we do hate to spend our energy and money on lawyers,” he adds cannily.

Such astuteness has been a feature of Forgeard’s rapid rise to the top, which saw him knighted by the Queen of Great Britain in 2004 for his services to European Industry. He also holds the French decorations Officier de la Légion d’Honneur and Officier de l’Ordre National du Mérite.

Prior to receiving these grand accolades Forgeard worked in engineering and advisory positions for the French Ministries of Industry, Transport, and Defence and switched over to the private sector in 1981 for the steel maker Usinor, rising to executive positions. He then joined Ascometal, another steel concern, but returned to the French government as an advisor in 1986.

In private industry again he rose to executive management positions in Matra Hautes Technologies, eventually becoming president of its parent firm, the Lagardère Group. In total, Forgeard served 12 years with the privately owned Lagardère, prior to joining Airbus Industrie in April 1998 as managing director of the consortium. He then became the first president and CEO of the integrated Airbus company in July 2001. As well as sharing the chief executive position at EADS he is also a member of the company’s executive committee.

But there is more to Forgeard and EADS than the high-profile achievements of Airbus. As well as the aircraft manufacturer (of which EADS and BAE Systems are the two shareholders), the group includes the world’s largest helicopter supplier Eurocopter and the joint venture MBDA, the international leader in missile systems. EADS is also the major partner in the Eurofighter consortium, the prime contractor for the Ariane launcher, develops the A400M military transport aircraft and is the largest industrial partner for the European satellite navigation system Galileo.

All of these activities make EADS an extremely financially successful group. So far this year EADS has made profits of US$2.48 billion, compared to the US$1.18 billion it earned for the whole of last year. In 2004, EADS generated US$37.5 billion in terms of revenues, US$2.7 billion of which came from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region where the group has a further US$28.3 billion in back orders and expects US$8.7 billion in new orders over the coming year.

In commercial terms, carriers in the Middle East have placed cumulative orders for over 300 Airbus aircraft, some 200 of which have been delivered to date. Airbus’ largest Middle East customer is Emirates Airline, with which its partnership dates back to the carrier's inception in the mid-1980s. Bahrain’s Gulf Air and Lebanon’s MEA run all-Airbus fleets while the national carriers of Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, Syria and Yemen all operate Airbus planes. Furthermore, low-cost carriers Air Arabia, Menajet and Jazeera Airways all use A320s.

Airbus forecasts that carriers in the MENA region will acquire more than 1,000 aircraft, worth some US$124 billion, up to the year 2023.

And Forgeard, who has close ties with the Middle East, hopes to win more than half of this market. “We have a lot of very faithful customers in the Middle East and I have personally been very involved in the region since my time as CEO of Airbus,” he explains. “I have worked closely with Emirates for years. And Qatar Airways is another interesting character — it may not be the largest airline in the MENA zone but is the biggest all-Airbus operator in the region,” he adds.

Emirates is the largest customer in the world for the A330-200, of which it has some 30 in service. It is also the largest customer for the A340-500 and –600, with orders for eight and 18 aircraft, respectively, in the pipeline. At the Paris airshow in June Qatar Airways ordered 60 A350s while Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airlines made a 24 plane all-Airbus order, including 12 A330s and eight A340s, in only its first full year of operation. And Forgeard is keen to broker more and more of these big deals before the year-end.

“Since 2001 we have by far — by very, very far — dominated Boeing in terms of market share and I expect to make even more deals by the end of the year,” Forgeard predicts. “We are highly favoured in the Middle East — and that is something that pleases us greatly,” he adds, smiling.||**|||~||~||~|Highly favoured is perhaps something of an understatement — as regional orders of Airbus’ latest and greatest plane, the A380 double-decker superjumbo, which is the largest ever passenger jetliner, shows. Emirates was the first airline in the world to announce that it would acquire the A380 and is the largest customer for it, with 43 on order, including two freighters. Qatar Airways, meanwhile, is set to receive two superjumbos while Etihad has signed up for four.

“We had many, many orders for the A380 before the carriers had even seen it and before it had made a single flight — that shows the confidence airlines have in us and in the A380,” explains Forgeard. “Customers no longer get launch concessions but they still wanted the A380 and they still do. Today, if customers want an A380 they will have to wait until at least 2010 because we have so many on order,” he adds.

Airbus has so far sold 159 of the 555-seat A380s at a list price of US$292 million each and is in talks to sell the plane to more airlines in China and India. However, the new plane is running four to six months behind schedule, with the first delivery now expected late next year. This has angered some customers, with Singapore Airlines threatening to sue for damages. Forgeard, unsurprisingly, is ultra-protective of the project.

“I’m totally fed up with these dramatised stories about delays,” he says, irately. “Instead of delivering the A380 in the second quarter of 2006 we are delivering it in the fourth quarter. In the history of civil aviation this is a very moderate delay — all the airlines know this — it’s a six-month delay — not the end of the world,” he jokes.

Earlier this month the superjumbo landed at Singapore’s Changi Airport after making its first long-haul test flight outside Europe. The 13-hour flight from Airbus’ base in France covered 13,500 kilometres. Despite the many trials the new jet has recently made, Forgeard claims the delays are not down to technical concerns.

“The delay is purely down to industrial issues. The A380 has already performed hundreds of hours of flights and it flew every day at the Dubai airshow,” he says. “We have been a little overloaded with this programme because we are due to deliver 25 airplanes in the first year. It’s a big project and we are having a lot of discussions with different airlines about the systems, cabins and the steering, which is a bit heavy. It has to be right,” he adds.

This attention to detail could prove to be crucial in Airbus’ battle with rival Boeing, which recently entered the jumbo jetliner market by launching its updated 747, dubbed the 747-8.

Earlier this month Boeing announced orders for 18 of the new planes valued at a total of US$5 billion at list prices from Cargolux and Nippon Cargo Airlines. The orders have breathed new life into a programme that many, including Airbus, had pronounced dead with the advent of the A380.

It is hard to know if Airbus executives really believed Boeing would launch a newer version of the 747. Until recently, most of the evidence suggested that Boeing had no appetite for designing another jumbo jetliner. It had killed four potential new versions in less than 10 years.

However, Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia is one of many aviation experts who believe the A380 business case looks “far better as a monopoly” and has been “mortally weakened” by Boeing’s new offering. Forgeard, of course, disagrees.

“I wouldn’t say that the Boeing 747-8 weakens the A380 business plan at all because the A380 is now strongly established in the market,” he insists. “The A380 business plan was never built on the basis of a monopoly. We have always based it on having 50% of the market share and never more,” he explains.

Despite Forgeard’s claims, Boeing appears to have come up with an innovative design that lets it capitalise on the 747’s distinctly shaped hump-nose model, which sets it apart from every other commercial aircraft — even though it incorporates new apparatus from other Boeing airliners. Furthermore, the new 787 technologies are expected to make the smaller 747-8 lighter to fly and cheaper to buy than the larger A380. Forgeard, however, is unimpressed and is adamant that Airbus customers are looking for more than Boeing’s new plane can offer, which he claims is merely an updated design from the 1960s — citing the new A350 as a case in point.

“If you look at two recent initiatives within the industry; the A350 and the 747-8 they are quite different. The A350 is a totally new aircraft — totally new — the wings are new, the fuselage is new and even the engines are new,” he claims resolutely. “It is the most modern aircraft of this century and we spent US$5.1 billion on its development. The 747-8 is not much different from the 747 — it is just a little stretched — that’s it,” he adds.

Forgeard is united in this belief with Thomas Enders, who has been his co-CEO at EADS since the former Airbus boss won a power struggle for the leadership of the group and unseated former chairman and chief executive, Philippe Camus in June. EADS has been run by two co-CEOs since the group was established in 2000, with one nominated by the company’s French shareholders and the other nominated by Germany’s DaimlerChrysler AG, which holds a 33% stake.

Media reports claim Forgeard would like to see the company's two CEO system abolished in favour of having a single chief executive structure in a move that EADS’ German shareholders have seen as an attempt to engineer a French dominated management team.

But the Frenchman predictably denies this, saying the two men have a good working relationship.

“Tom and I are quite different characters but we trust each other with the daily running of the business. Tom takes a lot of decisions and so do I and we call each other afterwards and we consult in advance on important matters,” he says. “Unfortunately for us we are not the owners of the company but the shareholders are and they decided that there will be two of us, whatever we think of it,” he adds.

With deals for at least 65 Airbus aircraft signed off at last week’s Dubai airshow and a massive backlog of orders to deliver, it looks like the two CEO system and Forgeard’s success story is set to continue for some time to come.||**||

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