Airbus’ top salesman, COO, customers, John Leahy, is more than familiar with the media limelight. But his typical role is to deliver good news of more aircraft orders; a role he handles with aplomb, often coupled with a sharp jab at Boeing.
Not so today. Airbus issued a short statement early this morning announcing that Emirates Airline had cancelled its order for 70 A350 XWBs. The size of the cancellation, the fact that the A350 is Airbus’ newest widebody, and because Emirates is a highly-regarded power player in the global airline market mean that even Leahy could not wrap this message in his usual bullish style. This is a serious blow to the manufacturer, no question.
The timing of the announcement was interesting, however. It came early on the morning of the first of two Airbus innovation days in Toulouse. An annual event, Airbus brings in journalists from around the world – there are some 150 reporters here this year – and its senior management briefs them on everything from aircraft program updates to new technologies and overall market status. Airbus president and CEO Fabrice Brégier hosts a dinner this evening and is expected to make some remarks and take a Q&A session.
Naturally, with the A350 heading to first delivery towards the end of this year, to launch customer Qatar Airways, this year’s program has a large focus on the aircraft’s flight test program.
So while Airbus clearly did not expect or want to open this event with bad news, ultimately the timing could be fortuitous for a number of reasons. First, Airbus has the world’s aviation media captive at its Toulouse delivery center, so it is in a position to handle the message and the questions directly. And Leahy did this with style, adapting his opening remarks to deal with the cancellation head on. It’s not the world’s greatest news, he admitted, but life goes on and the A350 program “is in great shape”.
Second, the innovation days’ program schedule includes a visit tomorrow to one of the A350 test aircraft and to meet with its pilots. There’s nothing like some hands-on show-and-tell to maintain or even increase excitement about a new aircraft.
Finally – perhaps most important – Airbus had the chance to mitigate the shock of the cancellation order before the Farnborough Air Show that will take place in the UK in July. By then, this will be relatively old news and Boeing’s ability to play it up will be more limited. Many of the aviation journalists here in Toulouse will also be at Farnborough and they will already have had the Airbus viewpoint and the chance to get comment from Emirates.
So I fully expect Leahy to be back in his more usual role at Farnborough – delivering good news with a broad smile and, naturally, the occasional dig at his “friends in Seattle”.