In the jet-sales wrestling match fought daily by Boeing and Airbus, diplomats are a big part of the sales force, according to cables released by WikiLeaks.
WASHINGTON — The king of Saudi Arabia wanted the United States to outfit his personal jet with the same high-tech devices as Air Force One has.
Turkey’s president wanted the Obama administration to let a Turkish astronaut sit in on a NASA spaceflight.
The Bangladesh prime minister pressed the State Department to re-establish landing rights at Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Each of these leaders was trying to decide whether to buy billions of dollars’ worth of commercial jets from Boeing or its European rival, Airbus. And U.S. diplomats were acting like marketing agents, offering deals to heads of state and airline executives whose decisions could be influenced by price, performance and, as with all finicky customers with plenty to spend, perks.
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This is the high-stakes, international bazaar for large commercial jets, where tens of billions of dollars are on the line, along with hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs.
At its heart, it is a wrestling match fought daily by executives at two giant companies, Boeing and Airbus, in which each controls about half of the global market for such planes.
To a greater degree than previously known, diplomats are a big part of the sales force, according to cables released by WikiLeaks.
In interviews, State Department and Boeing officials acknowledged the important role the government plays in helping them sell commercial airplanes, despite a trade agreement signed by U.S. and European leaders three decades ago intended to remove international politics from the process.
The U.S. economy, said Robert Hormats, State Department undersecretary for economic affairs, increasingly relies upon exports to the developing world — nations such as China and India, as well as those in Latin America and the Middle East.
So pushing big-ticket items (or objecting if a U.S. company does not get a fair chance to bid) is central to the Obama administration’s strategy to help the nation recover from the recession.
Boeing earns about 70 percent of its commercial-plane sales from foreign buyers and is the single biggest U.S. exporter of manufactured goods. Every $1 billion in sales translates into an estimated 11,000 jobs, the State Department says.
“That is the reality of the 21st century; governments are playing a greater role in supporting their companies, and we need to do the same thing,” said Hormats, a former top executive at Goldman Sachs.
Said Tim Neale, a Boeing spokesman: “The way I look at it, it levels the playing field.”
But Charles Hamilton, a former Defense Department official and now consultant to Airbus, said the government’s advocacy undermined arguments by Boeing and the U.S. that Airbus had an unfair advantage because of subsidies from European governments.
One example of the horse-trading involved Saudi Arabia, which in November announced it would buy 12 Boeing 777-300ER jets, with options for 10 more, a transaction worth more than $3.3 billion at list prices.
That announcement was preceded by years of intense lobbying by U.S. officials.
One pitch came in late 2006, when Israel Hernandez, a senior Commerce Department official, hand-delivered a personal letter from President George W. Bush to the Jeddah office of King Abdullah. The letter urged the king to buy as many as 43 Boeing jets to modernize Saudi Arabian Airlines and 13 jets for the Saudi royal fleet, which serves the extended royal family.
The king read the letter, a State Department cable says, and announced Boeing jets were his favorites. He said he had just turned down two new Airbus jets, opting instead for a slightly used Boeing 747.
But before he would commit to a mostly Boeing fleet, the king had a request.
“I am instructing you,” he told Hernandez politely, according to the State Department cable, “to speak to the president and all concerned authorities,” as the king “wanted to have all the technology that his friend, President Bush, had on Air Force One.”
Once he had his own high-tech plane, the king told Hernandez, ” ‘God willing,’ he would make a decision that will ‘please you very much.’ “
A State Department spokesman confirmed last week that the United States had authorized an “upgrade” to King Abdullah’s plane.
Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, was equally direct in making landing rights at Kennedy Airport a condition of the airplane deal, then at risk of collapsing.
“If there is no New York route, what is the point of buying Boeing?” a November 2009 cable quotes Hasina as saying. The deal with Boeing went through. Flights by Biman Bangladesh Airlines to New York have not been restored.
The request from Turkey for a slot on a future NASA flight came early last year, as Turkish Airlines was considering buying as many as 20 Boeing jets.
The government owns slightly less than half the airline, but Turkey’s minister of transportation, Binali Yildirim, in a January 2010 meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, made clear the country’s president wanted help with its fledgling space program and perhaps assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration to improve its aviation safety.
“We probably cannot put a Turkish astronaut in orbit, but there are programs we could undertake to strengthen Turkey’s capacity in this area that would meet our own goals for improved aviation safety,” wrote James Jeffrey, then the U.S. ambassador. “In any case, we must show some response to the minister’s vague request if we want to maximize chances for the sale.”
Turkish Airlines ordered 20 Boeing planes a month later.
Some sales come to Boeing in part because foreign leaders want to show friendship to the U.S.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II, a longtime ally and recipient of billions in U.S. aid, told the ambassador in 2004 that “even though the latest Airbus offer was better than Boeing’s he intended to make a ‘political’ decision to have Royal Jordanian buy Boeing aircraft,” a State Department cable said, although the U.S. still had to help Boeing snag the deal.