As Airbus super-salesman John Leahy retires from the jet world after more than three decades, he talks about how the European jet maker came from nowhere to achieve parity with Boeing, and how he helped shape and define airliners built by both industry giants.
John Leahy, the legendary jet salesman who helped European jet maker Airbus come from nowhere to achieve parity with giant Boeing, is finally retiring.
Leahy was more than a sales chief. A demanding and driven leader, he helped shape and define Airbus’ aircraft lineup, and indirectly even Boeing’s lineup of jets.
An American working out of Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, Leahy reveled in besting his U.S. counterparts. At countless aviation-industry events over more than three decades, he baited and poked fun at “our friends in Seattle.”
John Leahy’s soaring career
Born: 1950 in New York
Education: Studied communications and philosophy at Fordham. Learned to fly while earning his MBA at Syracuse.
Career: Hired in 1977 by Piper Aircraft to sell its small general-aviation airplanes. Joined Airbus in 1985, promoted to head of North American sales. Appointed head of Airbus worldwide sales in 1994.
Recognition: In March 2012, Leahy was named an Officer of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s top civilian award.
He was “the guy we all liked to hate at Boeing … but he was very effective,” said Toby Bright, head of sales at Boeing in the early 2000s.
In an interview on his way out, Leahy set aside his barbs and recalled some of the turning points and setbacks in the rise of Airbus.
His creative and aggressive sales tactics first made their mark in 1986 when he offered Northwest Airlines, essentially an all-Boeing airline, an irresistible “buy small, think big” deal on A320 jets.
He told Northwest executives they could place a firm order for just 10 airplanes, but “we’re going to give you the price for 100. We’ll give you delivery dates for 100.”
If they didn’t like the Airbus planes, he told them, “That’s it. You’re stuck with 10. We’ll take the risk on the rest of them.”
“Sure enough, they loved the airplane,” he said. “They didn’t take just 100. I think they got up to 145.”
The latest in a long line of Leahy adversaries is Ihssane Mounir, Boeing’s current head of sales, who has brought such a new intensity to the U.S. company’s sales efforts that some here already hope he’ll be “Boeing’s Leahy.”
Yet after Boeing led Airbus by a wide margin in sales for most of last year, Leahy in a last hurrah landed massive sales during 2017’s final quarter to beat his rival one last time in the annual sales race.
“He’s a sharp-tongued, clever and tenacious salesman,” Mounir said in an email. “You may question his style — or occasionally disagree with it — but you can’t discount the impact he single-handedly has had on Airbus’ success.”
“I don’t think we’ll see another one like him,” Mounir added. “John is an iconic figure in our industry.”
Bold sales tactics
At 67, overweight and with a history of heart issues, New York-born Leahy is giving up a life of constant airplane travel and jet lag.
After a short transition period with his successor, former Rolls-Royce executive Eric Schulz, 54, Leahy says he’ll return to live in the U.S., determined to take it easy, eat right and get healthy.
When Airbus hired Leahy as sales chief for North America in 1985, its market share was just 13 percent. He was promoted to head all sales in 1994 and moved to Toulouse, where a year later he confidently told the incredulous Airbus board that his target was to win half the market.
In just nine years he got there, creating today’s roughly 50:50 jet duopoly.
His team has sold more jets than Boeing in all but four of the last 20 years.
After the Boeing downturn following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Airbus also delivered more jets than Boeing for nine straight years.
And though Boeing has now been the top jet producer for the past six years in a row, Leahy confidently predicts that by 2020 Airbus will ramp up its A350 and A320 assembly lines enough to regain the title of world’s No. 1 jet maker.
Leahy’s understanding of the market helped shape the jets he was pitching. He put together the launch case for the A380 superjumbo jet with 500-plus seats.
And when the initial model of the A330 lacked sufficient range, he argued internally for a longer-range version, a shift that helped propel the jet’s sales past Boeing’s 767.
His biggest miss was the four-engine A340, a poor seller that is now defunct. Airbus stuck to the idea of a four-engine plane for long-haul flights, allowing Boeing to succeed with the more fuel-efficient twin-engine 777.
To get level with Boeing, in the early days Leahy had to be bold.
“Some of these carriers didn’t know who this European manufacturer was,” he said. “There was reason for them to be suspicious.”
He followed up the Northwest Airlines coup with a bigger fish the following year, offering American Airlines 25 A300 airplanes on a lease with a “walkaway clause.”
He told American executives, “If it’s not working out, we’ll find a way to let you give them back.”
“We knew we were as good as we were claiming, so it wasn’t an enormous risk,” Leahy said. “No one ever exercised any walkaway clauses.”
Setbacks for Airbus
As Airbus encroached on its turf, Boeing fought back hard.
In 1996, as American Airlines sought to renew its fleet, the carrier signed an exclusivity deal with Boeing, buying 103 airplanes with options for 527 more over 20 years — and committing to buy only Boeing jets for that period.
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Delta made a similar 20-year deal the following year, and then Continental too.
“It was a big blow,” said Leahy. “They were going to extraordinary lengths just to avoid competition.”
When Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, the European Union insisted as a condition of approving the merger that the three exclusivity deals be dropped. But Leahy says the agreements were still honored under the table for many years.
It wasn’t until 2011 that American bought another Airbus jet, when Leahy offered the A320neo, an update to the single-aisle jet featuring new fuel-efficient engines.
It was a shock that caused Boeing to reverse course.
Boeing had been toying with the concept of an all-new 737 replacement, which would have taken years to develop. Instead, it immediately scrapped that idea and rushed to offer a re-engined 737, which became the MAX.
“I’m surprised Boeing didn’t see that earlier and start working on the MAX right away as soon as we launched the neo,” Leahy said.
An imprint on Airbus culture
Former Boeing exec Bright, now chief executive at airplane lessor Jackson Square Aviation, believes Leahy’s imprint on Airbus will endure.
“He’s built a scrappy team. They came from behind. They still have this underdog fight to them,” Bright said.
Brash as Leahy is, in his exit interview he was gentle.
He said that, on occasion over the years, he got along fine in private with top Boeing executives such as Jim McNerney and Ray Conner.
“We were all willing to have a drink with each other at an air show or an industry get-together,” Leahy said. “They are good people, fine people.”
“Just because I was pointing out that my A350 might be better than the 777, doesn’t mean the 777 isn’t a good airplane. It’s a very good airplane,” he said. “I just happen to think mine is better.”
Leahy has sold his mansion in Toulouse, and after 24 years there he will retire to the U.S., where he has homes in Florida and in the Washington, D.C., area.
“It’s been fun,” Leahy said, as he signed off. “Give my best regards to my friends in Seattle.”