by Helen MASSY-BERESFORD, Flight International business reporter
An EADS event is always a lavish - and often slightly bizarre - affair, and once again the company spared no expense as it unveiled the results of its "best financial year ever" in Paris on Wednesday. An "informal" dinner the night before the big presentation for the hordes of international journalists and PR and communications representatives that EADS had summoned turned out to be about as informal as the A380 is small, taking place in a sumptuous banquet hall that one of the guests only half-jokingly compared to the hall of mirrors at Versailles, dotted with impressive, if somewhat incongruous, models of EADS's flagship products including the A400M and NH90.
But the following day, as co-chief executives Noël Forgeard and Thomas Enders - who dubbed themselves "CEO A" and "CEO B" for the occasion - fended off questions on A380 delivery delays and wing-ruptures, European Union launch investment for the A350 and the future of the A340 programme it was clear the journalists were not going to be blinded by the opulent surroundings into giving them an easy ride. Forgeard attempted to make light of the media furore caused by the earlier-than-expected rupture of the A380's wing during testing. "The noise made around that was incredible - it was a non-event." But the questions kept on coming and although he was adamant that the test would not need to be repeated, he did admit that the delivery of the first two aircraft to Singapore Airlines by the end of the year would be "a real challenge - but we will do it."
Forgeard admitted that the future of the A340-500 and -600 aircraft is currently a hot topic within the company. "It's an outstanding model in terms of performance but one shortcoming is that it has four engines so burns slightly more kerosene than twins. We have two options - either to keep it as a niche aircraft - and it sells as such [or] if we want to widen the market of this model we have to cope with the fuel burn, which means a certain number of not-minor modifications of the aircraft. This file is on the desk of the Airbus management," he said, adding that it is also being debated at EADS level.
But with the A380 and A350 clear priorities for the group, the ailing airliner programme could be far down the list of priorities for Airbus: "it's not so much the money - it's the stress of engineering resources - we can't do everything at the same time," Forgeard said.
The EADS bosses were unable to avoid the contentious issue of launch aid, and Forgeard made no attempt to disguise his dwindling optimism that a transatlantic compromise can be reached: "our position has always been the same that we will refrain from drawing repayable launch loans as long as we see a realistic prospect of an amicable solution between the two sides of the Atlantic. The other side of the mirror is that as soon as it is clear that there is no prospect for such an amicable solution we shall draw the loans. Are we close to this situation? Yes I think we are closer and closer to this situation. But this does not kill a last chance if there is one."
The conference ended with a far-reaching message from "CEO B", Tom Enders, who made a plea for more cross-border co-operation in the European defence industry. This, he said, is key to EADS's future success, and its drive for internationalisation, which along with innovation and improvement is one of its corporate buzzwords for 2006. But, he said, it is not enough in evidence as things stand: "We are wondering whether the creation of EADS would still have been possible in 2006."
As the journalists left to file their stories we were given a final reminder EADS's pan-European panache as they presented us with a box of chocolates and a pink rose to celebrate that other great 8 March milestone - International Women's Day.