Amid the aerial acrobatics, Airbus seeks a soft landing

They're supposed to schmooze at the Farnborough Airshow. But the European plane maker will be spinning
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The Independent Online

Come 11am tomorrow, Christian Streiff, the chief executive of Airbus for all of 10 days, may wish he were being whisked away in one of his new com-pany's jumbo jets. Instead, he will be appearing at a press conference on the opening day of the Farnborough International Airshow, trumpeted as the man who will get things back on course at the troubled plane maker.

What a difference a year makes. At the 2005 Paris Air Show, Airbus and its Franco-German parent, EADS, were soaring. Having just unveiled the world's largest aeroplane, the A380 - an event attended by Tony Blair and heralded by French President Jacques Chirac as "a crowning achievement of a human and industrial adventure" - orders for the $300m (£163m) super-jumbo were rolling in. At the end of the week, Airbus had agreed a record number of requests for new aircraft, retaining a lead over its US arch-rival Boeing. EADS shares reached a new high.

Fast forward to tomorrow, and expectations are decidedly lower. EADS's share price has dropped more than 20 per cent in the past six weeks after the group announced a six- to seven-month production delay for the A380 - the second hold-up so far. It said it expected that to translate into a €2bn (£1.4bn) profit hit, and the revelation led to the resignations of the co-chief executive of EADS, Noel Forgeard, and the Airbus boss, Gustav Hubert.

EADS now admits its "reputation is at stake". Last week Boeing said that so far this year it had outpaced Airbus by a ratio of more than four to one in new orders. A good showing at this industry schmoozefest - one of the rare places where EADS and Boeing come face to face - is vital. "The 800lb gorilla is the Airbus press conference on Monday," says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Teal Group in Washington DC. "Airbus has always made big commercial announcements at the show. Now it's a prisoner of those expectations."

The world's largest makers of jumbo airliners won't be the only ones in attendance. The biennial Hampshire show (in alternate years, the industry gathers at Le Bourget, outside Paris) attracts thousands of buyers and sellers of military and civil aircraft, who come together for five days of wheeling and dealing. By the weekend, when the public is invited in, signatures will have been put to billions of pounds of orders. Nearly $50bn in new business was announced last year.

The event attracts a strange combination of multinational companies, foreign governments, plane spotters and families. The RAF's Red Arrows aerobatics team will put on displays, and boxing robots will duke it out in the Extreme Fighting Machines Challenge Arena. On Friday, International Youth Day, children will be shown how to build combat robots, among other activities.

The show is important for the defence industry, where giants such as BAE Systems woo governments, hoping to persuade them to buy everything from remote- control drones to the latest jet fighters. Indeed, BAE will deliver its first Hawk jet to Bahrain at the show. Outside, groups such as Campaign Against Arms Trade have organised protests.

Britain's defence procurement minister, Lord Drayson, will also be on hand on Wednesday to give his opinion on progress toward the goals of the Defence Industrial Strategy published last year. The strategy sets a framework for a more efficient, collaborative approach between industry and the state. Lord Drayson, who is responsible for the Government's £15bn military equipment budget, said earlier this month that he was unhappy with progress so far.

Yet it is the simmering rivalry between EADS and Boeing that will grab the headlines, and it is up to Mr Streiff and John Leahy, the chief operating officer and Airbus salesman extraordinaire, to win back some ground. (Louis Gallois, the successor to Mr Forgeard at EADS, and his co-chief executive, Tom Enders, will hold a session on Tuesday).

Aside from placating existing A380 customers, and trying to attract a few more, Mr Streiff is expected to use the show to unveil a new plane to replace the mid-size A350, which has been getting beaten on orders by Boeing's more fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing's plane will be the first to be made almost completely of carbon composites, making it lighter. Customers have bought enough to keep the company building them from 2008, when the first roll off the line, to 2012.

"No one is going to buy the A350 as it stands now," says Teal's Mr Aboulafia. "They can't just announce mere changes to the A350, they need a major commitment to a new product." Assuming Airbus does so - the model is rumoured to be called the A370 - analysts expect the new plane to double the €4bn it has spent already developing the A350.

That is sure to inflame Boeing's long-running complaints about the "launch aid" - generous loans - that Airbus gets from European governments.

The new Airbus plane could also provide a fillip to Rolls-Royce, which is tipped by analysts to win the engine contract.

Boeing is trying to sustain its momentum. Though the first one has yet to be built, the 787 has been a runaway success. But the 747-8, a stretch version of the double-decker 747 which it has touted as its answer to the A380, has not done so well. So far, only cargo carriers have shown interest, and Boeing is eager to announce its first sale to a passenger airline.

The other bit of news could come on the 787-10, the stretch version of the 787 Dreamliner, which has been requested by customers. Boeing has thus far balked at producing the stretch model, say analysts, because it would compete with its 777.

Much will be made of orders from big buyers such as Emirates, though these should betaken with a grain of salt. Often they bear "only the flimsiest relationship to commercial reality", says Mr Aboulafia. Airbus, for example, announced a 60-plane order from Qatar Airways at Paris last year. Nothing has come of it. Boeing has also boasted of "orders" that are less than firm.

It is typical of an industry where competitors herald their successes, however tenuous, as proof of their view of the market.

"Airbus is arguing for larger aircraft, and Boeing is much more for market fragmentation and smaller aircraft," says analyst Nick Cunningham of broker Panmure Gordon. "The reality is that neither of them know." What is certain is that Farnborough will generate plenty of bluster, and not just from the Red Arrows streaking overhead.

FLYING INTO A STORM: THE TROUBLED HISTORY OF THE A380

1993 Airbus unveils plans to develop a plane that can seat between 550 and 800 people, codenamed the A3XX.

June 2000 Emirates, the first A3XX customer, orders seven.

July Airbus's parent, EADS, floats in Paris.

December Airbus board approves the $11bn (£6bn) super-jumbo project. Plane renamed the A380.

2002 first delivery set for 2006.

2004 EADS concedes there could be big cost overruns on the project.

January 2005 Airbus unveils completed A380.

June Airbus announces a six-month delay for the A380s.

2006 May An A380 lands at Heathrow, making its UK debut.

June EADS announces further delays in the project and issues a €2bn (£1.4bn) profit warning.

July EADS's chief executive, Noel Forgeard, is replaced by Louis Gallois. Airbus boss Gustav Humbert is replaced by Christian Streiff.

Miranda McLachlan

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