How Airbus got to be number one.
- By Bill Sweetman
- Air & Space magazine, November 2003
(Page 3 of 7)
In July 1973, Adam Brown, now Airbus’ head of strategic planning, joined the firm directly from Hawker Siddeley’s Hatfield factory, where he had helped sell Tridents. “It wasn’t a very difficult decision, although a lot of people thought we were crazy,” Brown recalls. “But what was there to lose?”
“We Germans thought we were coming to a French company, but it was the French who were totally lost,” says Jurgen Thomas, now special advisor to Airbus’ CEO, Noël Forgeard. “The French were hierarchical, with no delegation of power. They weren’t in a position to take a decision in a meeting.” The British and Germans resorted to subterfuge, Thomas recalls. “We let things leak ahead of the meeting, so that the French could propose it as their solution. It was much easier.”
Thomas admits that some stereotypes of German management proved true: “There was still a Prussian disease. It was formal, the agenda had a time slot for each item, and there were separate paragraphs for everything.” The British encountered a different culture at the Airbus facility. At de Havilland’s Hatfield division there were six levels of company dining. “They had toilets for different levels of staff,” recalls Thomas. Airbus people took lunch in an all-ranks café. “You’d see a vice president having lunch with a secretary,” says Thomas. One senior executive from Hawker Siddeley stomped out in disgust.
“Only the French would have done it” is how Adam Brown recalls the first A300 sales tour, a six-week odyssey around the Americas from Rio to Chicago in 1973. French fashion designer Andre Courreges designed the women’s cabin crew uniforms. Ted Lapidus dressed the men. Four and a half tons of Moet & Chandon champagne occupied the cargo hold. They got away with such frills because nobody cared. “The Airbus people were looked down on by people on Concorde,” Thomas says. Even the Mercure got more attention in Paris, thanks to Dassault’s political pull.
The team was determined to be on time and within budget—a first for any European joint program. “The motivation was incredible,” says Thomas. “When I called people to work on Saturday or Sunday, it was the people who weren’t called who were insulted.” The A300 debuted on schedule in 1974.
With soaring fuel prices, it was the worst time for a new airplane. Airbus logged a dribble of orders in 1975, followed by a 16-month drought. From the end of 1975 until April 1977, not one aircraft was sold, and “white tails” —airplanes without customers—began to appear on the Toulouse ramp.
In the dark days of 1976, Thomas recalls, “we had a meeting of 25 or 30 people, with this gentleman I had never seen before.” Bernard Lathiere was a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, where France trains its elite, and he had been sent on a mission: Step in as president, replacing Ziegler, and either kill Airbus or save it. A sharp contrast to his immediate subordinates, the lean, ascetic Beteille and Kracht, Lathiere was a florid glad-hander, a natural speaker who became Airbus’ chief salesman.
One light gleamed: Western Airlines had ordered eight airplanes, with an option for four more. It was the first time a U.S. airline had bought a European jet since 1964. But at the end of January 1977, Western announced it had ordered 727s instead. Airbus canceled orders for long-lead items—parts that would be needed for aircraft delivered in 1979. It was close to the end.