The 30 Billion Dollar Man

Seddik Belyamani wrote the book on selling passenger jets.

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Where there once were a half-dozen or so companies building jet airliners of 100 seats or more, only Boeing and Airbus survive. Boeing normally has between 60 and 70 salespeople in the field; Airbus a similar number.

“What’s special is that there are only two of us,” notes Airbus’ vice president for Middle East sales, Abdellah Sbai. (Coincidentally, Sbai, a rising star at his company, is also Moroccan-born and also entered the business via Toulouse and Royal Air Maroc.) “There’s always a winner and a loser at the end, and you always lose against the same competitor,” he says.

At a personal level, the rivalry between the two giant manufacturers has been friendly. Says Sbai: “We meet in the same waiting rooms and we pass them in the corridors.” But they never talk business, he adds.

During a hard-fought sales campaign in Australia, John Leahy, Airbus’ chief commercial officer, invited him aboard an Airbus A320 in Sydney. “We toasted each other, each of us thinking, Here’s to your loss,” says Belyamani. Boeing prevailed, and Leahy later told Belyamani that he’d send him a photo of their meeting when he was in a better mood.

The sales campaign—Belyamani calls it “an obstacle course with people throwing things at you”—never goes the same way twice, though it starts when an airline indicates that it’s ready to buy airplanes and ends when the manufacturer’s representative and the airline CEO sign the contract. And not a second sooner, as Belyamani has learned when airlines balked at the last instant. That kind of last-minute crunch is unusual; most airlines push for concessions from the first day.

After the initial indication of interest, it’s the manufacturer’s turn. Like all salesmen, those selling airplanes strive to make deals that retain as much profit as possible for the company. The salesman makes the first offer, which is calibrated to appeal to the airline without giving away the store. “If you’ve done your homework properly, you’ve talked to the decision makers, the head of the department that analyzes this stuff, the VP of operations, the maintenance guys, and they’ve told you what they would like to see,” says Belyamani. “So you go in with your proposal. The next day they tell you you’re way off the mark, you’re never going to win. It depends on how aggressive their negotiating style is. Some of them will tell you how much you’re off, particularly if they’ve made a gut decision to buy your airplane.”

In rare cases, the negotiations are brief; some products sell themselves. “The most beautiful campaign we had, years ago, was Air Mauritius,” Belyamani recalls. In it, the 767 went head to head with Airbus’ A310. “They wanted to fly from Mauritius to London, and the A310 can’t make it. End of speech. Today you have the A320 and the 737-800 and they’re close enough that you’re arguing about seats and price.”

Often the negotiations—arguing over seats and price—take a long time, and winning a campaign requires patience. “The [Boeing] 777 has some advantages that we can quantify over the [Airbus] A340. You have to start selling that story two years before the decision. You can’t come in at the last minute and say, ‘My airplane’s more expensive, but it has all of these advantages, it carries more cargo, it burns less fuel.’”

Analysts and marketing people provide the salesmen with technical data and information that make the airplane look as good as possible. “One of the biggest areas of tweaking is seats,” Belyamani says. A good analyst will add seats to his airplane knowing the airplane probably would never go out the door that way; it’s just for the seat-miles game. “There are tricks: the number of galleys, number of lavatories, number of closets.” The competitor claims an equal number of closets and hopes the airline won’t notice that they’re smaller. “We measure the closets by rod length,” Belyamani says, pointing out that it’s the number of hangers you can fit in all the closets that determines total storage capacity. And if the seating layout has no cross-aisle, that’s a dead giveaway that the salesman is being less than realistic. “In a twin-aisle airplane you need a cross-aisle somewhere in the middle of the airplane,” says Belyamani. Without it, there will be traffic jams and meal carts in gridlock.

But ultimately, the salesman’s most effective tool is an intimate knowledge of the airline and the people who make it run. “The litmus test of having a close relationship with an airline customer is when you can feel free to call the CEO at home, talk to his or her spouse, and get valuable advice on where you stand,” Belyamani says. “The ultimate is when the CEO starts confiding in you about his personal life.” That doesn’t happen very often, he adds.

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