John Leahy, Airbus’s chief salesman, had to sneak into the Credit Suisse (CS) building in New York through a loading dock on Nov. 30 to dodge a crowd of Occupy Wall Street protestors that was trying (unsuccessfully) to block access to the CS/Aviation Week A&D Finance Conference. The experience seemed only to energize Leahy, who went on to entertain a blue chip audience of institutional investors with his usual bold claims and sarcastic comments about arch-rival Boeing.
Leahy – a New York native whose formal title is COO-customers – is riding high, with Airbus having captured a record 1,600 orders so far this year, propelled by the blockbuster sales success of its A320NEO. He claims the NEO will have at least 15% improved fuel burn, compared with a gain of just 8% for Boeing’s response, the 737MAX. “That’s going to change the dynamic in the bread and butter [segment] of this industry,” he boasted. And he did not bat an eye when CS analyst Rob Spingarn noted in response that Boeing is claiming that the MAX will have 7% lower operating costs than the NEO. “I think there are some very aggressive marketing people in Seattle that are – how should I say this – veracity challenged,” Leahy replied, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
Leahy also took a swipe at Boeing’s 787 jet, which finally entered service this year three and one-half years behind schedule. “Nobody could be that bad,” he quipped. And he revealed an “I told you so” conversation he had with Bombardier President and CEO Pierre Beaudoin after the Canadian aircraft builder invaded Airbus’s and Boeing’s market with the CSeries jet, which has not sold well despite its advanced features. “I told Pierre, I don’t know why he decided to cross the Maginot Line there above 100 seats and decide he was going to put Airbus and Boeing out of business with one fell swoop with the CSeries,” Leahy recounted. “That was obviously going to get a counterattack. … If we’re reducing the fuel burn by 15%, [the NEO is] sitting right on top of them with an airplane with a bigger fuselage and longer range that’s a member of a family” of common jets.
Leahy was even more dismissive of Comac’s new C919 jet, but only to a point. “The Chinese will be several years late, everybody knows that,” he said. But he added that he expects China will keep investing in new airplanes and likely be a strong competitor to Airbus in 20 years.
The speech included a pep talk on the success of Airbus’s A380, while omitting the fact that the double-decker jet has been a financial albatross for the company that has yet to earn a cent. And Leahy predicted United Airlines will need to order A380s to secure its strong presence in long-haul traffic to Tokyo. “United is going to have to get on board with the A380,” he said.
Leahy was candid about his relief over Boeing’s decision to counter the A320NEO with the 737MAX instead of proceeding with its preferred plane to develop an all-new, next-generation narrowbody. “I will be the first one to admit, we dodged that bullet,” he said. “I didn’t want to face an all-new airplane in 2020 or 2022.”