Turbulent times

Pride comes before a fall we are told, and while Airbus is far from on its knees the aircraft manufacturer is certainly wobbling.

This week’s news of further delays to its flagship A380 project is in stark contrast to the pride felt by many Europeans when the ‘Superjumbo’ was unveiled with great fanfare in front of assorted prime ministers and presidents in January 2005.

The giant new aircraft, bristling with technological innovations and advanced engineering ­– much of it from the UK – was hailed by Tony Blair and other leaders as a shining example of pan-European co-operation. ‘It is a symbol of confidence that we can compete and win in the global market,’ he said.

Since then, of course, the A380 has been plagued by production problems and discontent among its airline customers is rising. The manufacturer faces, at the very least, making big compensation payments to the airlines that have pre-ordered A380s, and the withdrawal of orders altogether, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out.

As Airbus chief executive Christian Streiff made clear, the company will take drastic action to get itself onto an even keel. This will include major cost cutting, setting ambitious productivity targets, slashing new aircraft development times and tackling what he described as Airbus’s ‘cultural taboos’.

The last of these is surely code for ‘I’m going to have to upset a few people to get this sorted out.’ The problem for Airbus, and its parent group EADS (the UK’s BAE Systems is in the process of extricating itself from its 20 per cent ownership) is that once you are feted as an icon of pan-European co-operation when things are going well, you risk becoming a symbol of inter-continental strife when the waters turn choppier.

Airbus’ facilities are spread across Europe, and tensions will run high if any one country feels its national economy is in danger of emerging as a loser from any shake-up of the business.

For the UK any threat to the Airbus sites in North Wales and Bristol would be hugely damaging, and it is fervently to be hoped that these world-class facilities and their skilled workforces do not suffer any fallout from the company’s current misfortunes.

Of course, those in France, Germany, Spain etc. will be rooting for their own Airbus sites with equal vigour. And when the national governments get involved, as surely they will, what Airbus hopes will be hard-headed business decisions could turn into diplomatic incidents.

Such are the perils of being a symbol of Europe. We must hope that Airbus and the A380 can resolve their problems with minimal damage to jobs and harmony.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer and The Engineer Online