By Shane McGinley
From environmentalists, trade wars and the A380 to flying cars, pilotless planes and Boeing's 737 Max problems, Guillaume Faury, the new CEO of European giant Airbus, is not afraid to shy away from the big issues facing the aviation sector
When The Jetsons cartoon burst onto TV screens in 1962, with its flying cars, robot maids and holograms, it was seen as the futuristic counterpart to the popular Stone Age setting of The Flintstones.
The cartoon was set 100 years in the future, but the idea of it has always intrigued me and I have doggedly asked every senior aviation executive I have interviewed over the last decade whether this may become a reality soon or if I’ll have to wait until 2062 to be like George Jetson and jump in a bubble pod to work.
Sitting down in a Paris office with Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury was no different, but the answer certainly took me by surprise.
“Yes, it’s an area for us,” Faury confirms. No fluffy futuristic naval gazing or vague generalisations like I was used to, just straight to the point and a definitive confirmation that things are happening and very soon.
“We think there will be a business; it’s coming because there is a convergence of needs and technologies. The needs are coming from the fact that we have more than 50 percent of the world’s population living in urban areas - it’s going to 60 percent in 2030 and 70 percent in 2050. The world is a city, more and more, at least for human beings,” he says.
Flying cars pose a number of challenges such as security, fuel and safety, but it is something the Airbus chief confirms he is actively pumping money into in order to make it a reality. “Yes, it needs to be decarbonised for pollution reasons more than CO2, so it needs to be electrically powered. It’s not long distance so it can fly with batteries, we are pursuing this avenue. We think that safety is absolutely critical, it’s even more than any other aviation device because it’s flying over cities. That’s maybe the next step.”
“If a coal plant powers the electricity then it’s powered by coal. It’s not what we want to do in aviation, we want to decarbonise aviation”
Airbus is synonymous with developing the massive A380 double decker jumbo jet (more about its fate later) so why is it now focussing on smaller urban flying people carriers? “Another reason why we’re very serious about urban air mobility and those vehicles is because it’s a playground for us for decarbonised technologies. We can test on a small scale… And then we can scale up to bigger planes when we think we have something. So it’s a way to prepare the decarbonised technologies of large planes on a smaller scale and much faster and with less money,” he explains.
Faury was appointed CEO in April this year and the decarbonisation issue has been a top priority for him. A former automobile executive, having worked at French carmaker Peugeot from 2009 to 2013, he observed how electric cars took hold among motor fans but he believes the answer is not so simple when it comes to commercial aviation, which explains why they are looking to trial the technology on smaller flying cars first.
“Electricity is just a way to carry power, it’s not a source of energy. If a coal plant powers the electricity then it’s powered by coal. It’s not what we want to do in aviation, we want to decarbonise aviation. Therefore, we need liquid fuels because the energy density of kerosene is around 12,000 watt hours per kilogram. A battery is 200 to 500 watt hours per kilogram, it doesn’t work for us unless you’re going very short distances for urban mobility,” he says.
In terms of a timeline, Faury says the industry wants to be in a position by 2050 where CO2 emission levels are half what they were in 2005. But, like The Jetsons and their flying cars, Faury says these cleaner, greener planes are not a pipe dream and could also soon be a reality. “We believe it will take three, four, five years to develop some of those technologies, then [we’ll] start the development somewhere in the middle of the second half of the decade to have planes entering into service before 2035 and [then] start to decarbonise big time from 2035 onwards,” he says.
For environmentalists, aviation has become the whipping boy and everyone from Prince Harry to actress Emma Thompson have been branded hypocrites for campaigning about climate change but then using private jets to travel to events. Faury thinks it is unfair that plane travel has been made a target.
“The impact of planes on the environment is quite new and to some extent is quite unfair because we are 2 percent to 2.5 percent of the CO2 emissions”
“The impact of planes on the environment is quite new and to some extent is quite unfair because we are 2 percent to 2.5 percent of the CO2 emissions. It’s recently become very trendy to attack people travelling by plane. There is a lot of lack of knowledge and misunderstanding of data, that’s the part that I don’t like and think we need to do more in terms of explaining the fact that the fuel consumption per passenger per 100 kilometres on the [Airbus] 321 is two litres, which is significantly less than a car. So, if you have to go from Paris to Marseille, it’s much better to fly than to go by car.”
So does Faury believe the aviation industry just needs to get better PR? “I was in the car business 10 years ago and the scapegoat was the diesel. Things are changing with time, I think we need to explain better as an industry what our carbon footprint is. People who are flying in planes are challenged by some people who are using internet, telephones and so on… They don’t realise these industries are far more carbon emitting than aviation. It’s always easier to put the challenge on others. It’s the same with heating systems and basic things we do every day, and we don’t fly every day. So I think we need to look at the global picture, aviation is 1/50th of the CO2 emissions, so let’s put the level of energy on aviation that is consistent with aviation.”
When it comes to geopolitics, Faury does not shy away from addressing these issues, especially with President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ nationalist approach. While this may be seen as bonus for rival Boeing, Faury says the trade war issues between the US and Europe are not clear cut and a large percentage of Airbus planes and parts are made and sourced in the US.
“First, it’s not something we control. But it’s something that we can influence. I think there was a big misunderstanding on how the supply chain of aviation is working... I would like to remind that 40 percent of what we buy on an Airbus that goes to the US, 40 percent on any Airbus comes from the US. We procure 40 percent of what we buy from the US. We procure from the US, we manufacture in the US... We deliver in the US. We need a global, open trade scheme for aviation, that’s the way it works and the day we stop it, we will destroy value, big time, for all players.
“This is what I have tried to explain, that raising the tariffs on both sides of the Atlantic will be lose-lose for everybody. What we’re trying to achieve is both the US and the EU coming to the table to have a negotiation, a settlement, before it impacts aviation, travel, industries, jobs, which we think would be a pity,” he adds.
Similarly, closer to his home base, Faury believes a no-deal Brexit would be bad news for Airbus as the company has 14,000 staff in the United Kingdom and all of its wings are manufactured in Britain.
“We hope the UK will remain competitive for us because we like our presence in the UK, it’s a very strong industrial base”
“We hope the UK will remain competitive for us because we like our presence in the UK, it’s a very strong industrial base, but if there is uncertainty or if there is a bad ecosystem, degrading competitiveness on the long-term, we could make different investments,” he says.
“We believe a no-deal Brexit would not be favourable for a good long-term relationship… If we had to make a decision today to invest in a new wing, it would be very difficult to make the decision to invest in the UK, with the huge level of uncertainty. Fortunately, we are not in that situation. But if in two years from now and we still have to make a decision and it’s still very unclear, it puts the UK industrial base at risk. So it has to come to an end,” he believes.
Another area it could be perceived that Airbus may gain the upper hand on rival Boeing is the issues the American planemaker has had with the 737 Max, which was grounded by authorities after two fatal crashes in the space of five months that killed 346 people. Despite this, Faury says Airbus has not taken advantage of this and seen any change in its own order book, due to the long-term nature of plane manufacturing cycles.
“On the short-term there is no way for us to take any benefit from the situation. We stick with the commitment we have made to our customers, who are in the ramp up stage, which is quite difficult in the number of planes and in the complexity of the planes… In the long-term it might be different, but in the short-term, in the last six months, there has been nothing positive,” he admits.
When it comes to the Middle East and Airbus, the big story is, of course, the announcement earlier this year that the beloved superjumbo – the A380 – would stop deliveries within the next two years.
“Following a review of its operations, and in light of developments in aircraft and engine technologies, Emirates is reducing its A380 orderbook from 162 to 123 aircraft,” Airbus said in a statement in February. “As a consequence and given the lack of order backlog with other airlines, Airbus will cease deliveries of the A380 in 2021.”
“We need a global, open trade scheme for aviation, that’s the way it works and the day we stop it we will destroy value”
Faury is pragmatic about the winding down of the world’s biggest superjumbo.
“I love the plane and I think many passengers enjoy flying on the A380, it’s a great plane for passengers. But the world has changed, the environment is more important, specifically fuel consumption is making the life of four engine planes more difficult than it used to be in the past. This being said, some airlines manage to have a business case that works… Emirates is an airline that has managed to make fantastic use of the A380 in the way that they have structured their network and we really are thankful for that.”
Faury believes the trend is moving more towards point-to-point routes for airlines, but the A380 is not going to disappear altogether and he believes that on some busy routes it has a bright future for a long time to come.
“There are exceptions. One is going to London, when you’re really limited by slots and therefore having a big capacity really makes sense. Therefore, I think we can anticipate that there will be a lot of A380s flying to London for the decade to come, maybe more than what we see today. But the general trend that we see is more point-to-point. Passengers want to fly directly to their destinations, avoiding connections.”
So while I may soon realise my dream of flying in a bubble like The Jetsons, it seems travel further ahead to other planets and solar systems will remain a cartoonish fantasy as Faury is characteristically blunt that space travel is not high on Airbus’ agenda.
“No it’s not a priority for us. Our priority is connecting people and going environmentally friendly.” Those alien introductions will just have to wait then.
The Dubai Airshow
“Some of the most important airlines are based in the Middle East and they’re also connecting the world because the Middle East is almost the centre of the world in many perspectives. So, it’s always a very good place to understand what’s happening on a world scale… It is one of the shows that has a really global scale and where we [provide an] update [on] what’s happening in the world that has an impact on aviation. We are discussing topics which are not specifically related to the Middle East but [things like] growth, environment, global trade...”
“I think we have to improve the transparency and the way this offsetting market can be understood… I think more and more people are ready to offset their flight. The quality of the offset today is still a big debate. I have looked at it personally, not as the CEO of a company but as an individual, and it’s very confusing. We need, as an industry, to get maturity on what is a good offset, how do we spend the money appropriately to decarbonise what we are emitting and as an aviation industry we are looking at it.
“No, it will come, step-by-step. Many steps are required before it becomes a reality. The first one is technology, it’s not yet there but we are making progress. The second one is regulations. Once you have a technology how do you certify, how do you make sure it is safe? And the third one will be public acceptance. And this one might take even more time. Are you ready to come into a plane today without pilots and go across the Atlantic? I’m not ready, and I was a pilot as well. So it’s not that I don’t trust pilots, I trust them more than the systems. But then you have metros without drivers and you don’t even notice it and you’re OK with it.”For all the latest Transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.