The Contender

How Airbus got to be number one.

Air & Space Magazine

IN TOULOUSE, IT'S A POINT OF LOCAL PRIDE that a stone flung from the city's walls splattered the brains of the northerner Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusade in 1218. Located about 350 miles south of Paris, rural Toulouse is also distant in both history and sensibility from France’s capital city. So to describe an Airbus product as a “French aeroplane,” as British airline buccaneer Sir Freddie Laker once did, is to miss an important cultural point.

The region’s character is still apparent a few hundred yards from the headquarters of Airbus, where we pass a small farm with a few tank-size Charolais cows. Our destination is a double row of airplane hangars, each big enough for two soccer fields. Next year, workers will begin to assemble the world’s largest jetliner—the 550-seat, 560-ton, $275 million Airbus A380.

Today Airbus is thriving, but success was never a certainty. In 1974, Boeing vice president Jim Austin described the first Airbus product as “a typical government airplane. They’ll build a dozen or so and then go out of business.” Austin spoke from experience, and he was almost right.

Europe had invented the jet engine, built the first jet and turboprop airliners, and was building Concorde. But Boeing and Douglas were doing to the Europeans what de Montfort had done to the Cathar heretics. The 116 options to buy Concorde had melted away. Dassault had produced the Mercure, a Boeing 737 lookalike, but was never going to sell more than the 10 copies it had foisted on France-owned Air Inter. West Germany’s first and only commercial jet, the VFW-Fokker 614, was a dog. Britain was delivering a few last BAC One-Eleven twinjets and Hawker Siddeley Tridents—like smallish 727s—to Romania and China. Thanks to some crafty, almost underhanded maneuvering led by a French engineer named Roger Beteille, Toulouse had one rock left: the Airbus A300B.

Beteille was surprised when, in 1967, he was asked by his bosses at Sud-Aviation to form a team to design a jetliner. For 10 years he had headed a team in Cannes developing France’s nuclear missiles and its first satellites. Before that, he had been in charge of flight-testing the Caravelle, a rear-engine twinjet that had sold well in the late 1950s. United Airlines bought Caravelles, and the French almost had a deal with Douglas to build them, but the French balked at the upfront cost, and Douglas went on to build DC-9s.

Europe’s mistakes taught Beteille some key lessons. “You cannot compete with somebody by doing what he’s doing—you have to do something better, or at least different,” he says. In the mid-1960s, with Boeing already building the four-engine 747 and McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed discussing three-engine wide-bodies with U.S. airlines, the field was open for Europe to build a big twinjet.

Europe’s national aircraft industries were starting to work together, but jealousies prevailed. The Germans had money, but the British and French treated them as metal benders, not partners. The French government, embroiled in the summer street riots of 1968, had a record of seeking leadership in projects, then threatening to go it alone if their demands were not met. In Britain, many politicians and civil servants thought engines were a better business than aircraft. Working alone, none of them had competed successfully with the Americans, so Beteille’s mission to assemble a multi-nation team made sense. But it would be immensely complicated.

By late 1967 the outline of an airplane with two big Rolls-Royce engines was taking shape. The name “Airbus” came from the Germans. The number “300” matched the vehicle’s 300-seat capacity. But Beteille was worried that with each design iteration the airplane was getting closer in size to the rival three-engine U.S. aircraft. And in the course of visits to Rolls-Royce’s fusty headquarters in Derby, he had noticed something even more disquieting.

Most of the British government’s share of the A300 investment money was to go to Rolls-Royce for the RB.207 engine—a paper study at the time. But the company was also trying to sell the smaller RB.211 to Lockheed for its TriStar. Beteille discovered that “the people that I used to discuss the RB.207 with had disappeared. It wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on. Rolls was betting everything on the smaller engine, and they were using the U.K. government’s money for the RB.207 on the RB.211.”

In March 1968 Rolls-Royce won the TriStar business. Beteille was not sure the British government would pay for both engines or that Rolls could develop them even if it got the money. “I was convinced that the venture was dead,” Beteille recalls. The only option was to restart the design, “to do something smaller, either with an existing engine or an engine that was being developed for somebody else. But if I had told the partners that, they would have said ‘It’s dead. Let’s stop it.’ ”

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