PARIS — The leadership of Airbus appeared at a press briefing ahead of the Paris Air Show on the company’s 50th anniversary with an all-new team and a new style.
Chief executive Guillaume Faury led the group, talking about the company’s plans not only to automate and digitize production but to address concerns over climate change by “inventing the decarbonized aviation of the future.”
He was followed by new sales chief Christian Scherer, who proved a solid replacement for his firebrand predecessor John Leahy by not only talking up the Airbus jets but declaring their vast superiority to Boeing’s airplane lineup.
The Airbus communications team had “asked me not to trash the competition,” he said, disingenuously, “But I can’t help myself.”
Dirk Hoke, heading the Defense & Space division, and Bruno Even, heading the helicopter unit, completed the group.
Lined up on stage perched on high stools, the leadership team — new since since the Farnborough Air Show in London a year ago — looked relaxed, youthful and trim, each dressed in elegant, tight-fitting blue suits and white shirts with no ties, an image ready for Hollywood or Silicon Valley, with a touch of European flair.
In an early 18th-century townhouse converted to a modern event space, the message seemed to be: This is the new Airbus, ready for innovation.
CEO Faury, 51, talked about the dangers to the industry of Brexit and of world trade tensions. But he spent most of his time addressing the aviation world’s worries over climate change and the growing pressure “from regulators, passengers, politicians and citizens” to cut airplane emissions.
All signs point to continued growth of about 5% a year in global air travel, which means doubling the total fleet of big commercial jets in the world from about 25,000 today to about 50,000 in just 15 years.
“The big challenge for aviation,” said Faury, “is to continue to grow while becoming more sustainable.”
He spoke of using biofuels as only a short-term solution that will be helpful but said that “the dream is to have for the next generation a plane that will be fully decarbonized.”
His use of the term “decarbonized” is carefully chosen. Airbus is not talking about an electric airplane future, because planes that depend on electric batteries simply won’t scale up from urban taxis to airliners of the size built by Airbus and Boeing.
Instead, other non-fossil-fuel sources such as liquid hydrogen will have to be harnessed, a huge technological and engineering challenge.
And because electricity will be part of the solution, he said that for full decarbonization, countries around the world will need to move to generation of electric power from a “decarbonized primary electricity source,” meaning either solar, wind, hydroelectric or nuclear.
Such technologies would introduce new airplanes very different in look from current jets. Faury said Airbus is now beginning to experiment with possibilities, and he’s optimistic of real progress by 2035.
Faury said the other, much more near-term threat to aviation growth is the current trade tension in the world.
“The tensions are growing, especially triggered by the United States,” he said, specifically in the World Trade Organization case against Airbus subsidies, over which the U.S. is threatening to impose tariffs on European airplane parts and airplanes.
Faury said this is threatening “a business that is global” and advocated for free trade and an open market.
It was left to sales chief Scherer, at 57 the oldest of the four executives, to attack Boeing.
Declaring that in airplane sales, “economics wins,” Scherer flatly claimed that the A320neo single-aisle jet family has a 5%-to-10% seat cost advantage over the rival Boeing 737 MAX family.
Asked to justify that, he pointed only to the 1,000 more orders the neo has compared with the MAX.
The Boeing 737s are generally lighter than the A320s and a detailed analysis of the costs of the two depends on the precise seating configurations.
Scherer didn’t provide such detail but seemed to base his claim on lower maintenance costs because the A320 is a more modern plane, and on the extra fuel efficiency delivered by the larger fans on the A320 engines.
His next claim was more extraordinary.
In Seoul, South Korea, earlier his month, at the annual International Air Transport Association summit, he had trash-talked Boeing’s new 777X, which has a conventional aluminum fuselage and a new carbon-composite wing, by describing it as the Hummer of the skies, much heavier than his all-carbon-composite A350-1000.
In Paris, he followed up by pointing out that the 777X airframe is 39 tons heavier than an A350-1000 and for an ultra-long-range trip fully loaded from Asia to the U.S. it would need an additional 11 tons of fuel to carry the extra load — a 50-ton disadvantage, roughly equivalent to the weight of the 400 passengers and their bags.
With a Leahy-like flourish, he said that to fly such a trip for the same cost, “you have to fly the 777 empty.”
Scherer was asked for more detail on this extraordinary claim, to ensure he was comparing apples to apples.
The 777X is wider and is now typically configured with 10-abreast seating, whereas the A350 is more likely to be nine-abreast. That potential for extra passengers makes a huge difference in any per seat cost analysis.
Was he comparing nine-abreast to nine-abreast, or to 10-abreast? Scherer declined to say. He was simply talking weight. End of discussion. Leahy would have been proud.
And Scherer staked out a further unflattering comparison beyond the airplanes.
“We are viewed as a truly international company, a cosmopolitan company,” he said, referring to the company’s aircraft assembly operations not only across Europe but also in China, the U.S. (in Mobile, Alabama) and most recently Canada (having bought the Bombardier airplane program in Mirabel, Quebec).
“We are a citizen of the world,” said Scherer, “in contrast to some more nationally branded companies.”
This clear attack on Boeing seemed designed to sting at a moment when world trade tensions heightened by President Donald Trump have made the U.S. less popular in many parts of the world. Scherer’s Boeing counterpart, Moroccan-born Ihssane Mounir, may take special umbrage at that barb.
In the coming era of aviation innovation, one thing won’t change: The fierce rivalry between Airbus and Boeing.