Airbus keeps a low profile on its 50th birthday

As the European aviation leader turned 50 Wednesday, cloudy skies prevented a planned air pageant, mirroring the company’s deeper difficulties.

Pascal Pavani, AFP | An Airbus A319neo is parked on the tarmac of the Toulouse-Blagnac airport, near Toulouse, on October 19, 2017.

Airbus had planned to mark its 50th birthday Wednesday with a flypast for staff at its Toulouse headquarters. Six jets, spanning the European aviation giant’s commercial line, were scheduled to fly over the base escorted by the ‘French Patrol’ (Patrouille de France), the aerobatic display team of the French Air Force.

But cloudy weather forced the European aviation giant to cancel its air show at the last minute, company officials said. It’s perhaps a fitting turn of events for the already scaled-down fiftieth anniversary celebration. The company’s plans to hold a private event stood in stark contrast to past fanfare.

A moment of turbulence for Europe’s champion of the skies

Europe’s jetmaker was launched at a meeting between French and West German ministers on May 29, 1969, in a bid to revive struggling aircraft industries and seal post-war reconciliation.

After battling to overcome American domination of the commercial market with its A300 twin-aisle jet, which first flew in 1972, Airbus eventually became a globally recognised symbol of European industrial might.

Today, an Airbus takes off every 2.5 seconds worldwide, and the company has sufficient orders to keep its production lines busy for the next ten years.

But as it turns 50, Airbus is embroiled in soul-searching and a management upheaval amid an ongoing corruption investigation. The shakeup has led to cost-cutting measures that saw the budget for Wednesday’s celebrations slashed long before clouds gathered. Airbus’s plans for a private event stood in stark contrast to a lavish gathering of heads of state and hundreds of journalists in 2005 to mark the launch of the world’s largest airliner, the A380, which is now being axed due to weak demand.

Poor sales of the A380 contributed to Boeing overtaking Airbus in orders last year for the first time since 2012, although the US jetmaker’s gain has since been overshadowed by the scandal surrounding its 737 Max model. Two of the planes have crashed since last October, killing 346 people and prompting aviation authorities to ground dozens of the planes worldwide.

Boeing’s difficulties have presented an opening for its European rival, and its chief executive Guillaume Faury sounded a note of optimism at a Toulouse press conference last week.

“Today, Airbus produces half of all large commercial planes in the world,” and the company’s production of helicopters and defense aircraft is “flourishing”, he said. “We employ 130,000 highly qualified people internationally and we are a powerful engine of productivity, exports and innovation for Europe.”

“The aviation industry is on the verge of an unprecedented technological revolution,” he continued, citing artificial intelligence and the electrification of planes. “European aerospace should aspire to lead this coming revolution in terms of innovation and the transition toward a more sustainable aviation sector.”

Faury also paid tribute to past generations of Airbus employees.

“It’s fair to say that many people doubted our chances of success but here we still are 50 years and 12,000 commercial aircraft later,” he told reporters.

Legacy of another era in Europe

Airbus is a unique powerhouse of European industry, the living legacy of a moment when French and German priorities aligned to create a global market leader.

“The idea was to pool expertise in a single project. They had to fight the reticent impulses of national governments that were not yet sure if they wanted to co-operate politically,” said Nicola Clark, author of Airbus: The first 50 years.

“The Franco-German relationship ... eventually became the core of Airbus,” she said. Britain and Spain also joined early on.

A recent initiative to create an analog for rail through the merger of Alstom and Siemens was scuttled by European regulators in February. The EU’s antitrust commissioner said the mega-merger would have run afoul of the bloc’s competition regulations, creating a near monopoly in the European market and pushing up prices for passengers.

The decision dashed French and German hopes for a new European industrial champion to rival China's state-controlled giant CRRC, which is set to extend its reach into Europe through the country’s Belt and Road Initiative. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the EU’s decision would “serve the economic and industrial interests of China”.

China is also investing heavily in its state-owned aircraft manufacturer, Comac, in a bid to break the current Airbus-Boeing duopoly. But analysts say that a serious challenge to the two companies’ dominance is still a long way off.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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