CHINA SPECIAL: Airbus builds bridges

Beijing
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When Airbus opened its first final assembly line outside Europe in Tianjin in China more than two years ago, the move was greeted by its fair share of critics.

"People in Europe said we were giving away our crown jewels," says Airbus China's senior vice-president for customer services and internal operations Pierre Steffen, referring to concerns over intellectual property rights.

More than two years on, the A320-family final assembly line in Tianjin has churned out 32 aircraft in the airframer's best-selling family to eight Chinese airlines. Its latest delivery, to China Eastern Airlines, was on 22 October.

To date, the assembly line has delivered 21 of the twinjets this year. Airbus has said it plans to deliver 26 aircraft in 2010, and ramp up the production to 48 in 2012.

All the aircraft have had a 100% dispatch reliability rate so far, says Steffen, pointing to that as proof that the aircraft produced in Tianjin are of comparable quality to those assembled in Toulouse and Hamburg.

"If you take that as an indicator of how successful we are, that's an indication," he adds.However, Steffen indicates that the final assembly line in Tianjin is not about to produce aircraft for non-Chinese customers any time soon. "The Chinese market is twice as big as the output of Tianjin. There is absolutely no reason why we should market it to other markets," he says.

Since Airbus opened its Beijing office in 1990, the airframer's presence has grown in China. It now employs more than 1,000 staff in Airbus China and various subsidiaries with its Chinese partners. Of these, about 80% are local Chinese.

As of the end of August, there were more than 620 in-service Airbus aircraft operating in China. The airframer, which has a 43% share of the above 100-seater aircraft category market in the country, aims to deliver 110 aircraft this year. It had delivered 82 by the end of August.

Besides the final assembly line in Tianjin, which is a joint venture with the Chinese consortium of AVIC and the Tianjin Free Trade Zone, Airbus also has various other joint ventures with Chinese partners.

These include a training centre, a Harbin composites manufacturing centre that will help produce parts of the Airbus A350 XWB and an engineering centre.

The Harbin manufacturing joint venture will supply the rudder, elevators and manufacturing doors for the A350 XWB, which will make up a significant part of the 5% A350 workload that Airbus has allocated to Chinese companies.

Looking ahead, Steffen indicates that Airbus is unlikely to expand its manufacturing capabilities in the country even though he adds that there will "definitely be more opportunities" down the road.

AIRLINE MANAGEMENT

The airframer's priority now is to help China's civil aviation industry mature through safety training and airline management education. It will help to train pilots, work with Chinese authorities to improve air traffic control and advise airlines on safety and management issues.

"We don't want to give ourselves the image of a prolonged workbench," says Steffen. The airframer has partnered different parties in the aviation industry in different initiatives, such as working with training providers to promote the use of English among cadet pilots and maintenance personnel.

It has also linked with airlines to advise them on management issues. Three months ago, Airbus completed an extensive two-year review with privately owned carrier Spring Airlines on its safety management, an exercise that Steffen says was "very successful" and hopes to duplicate with other airlines. "We helped to train their pilots, pass on best industry practices and proposed change where needed Spring was very eager to learn," he adds.

Initiatives like this show Airbus is not "just about production and sales" in China, says Steffen, adding: "Our role here is to help build a bridge between the local market and Airbus headquarters, but it is equally important to build the bridge back."

The final assembly line in Tianjin has produced 32 Airbus A320-family aircraft

Airbus is not "just about production and sales" - it is reaching other aviation sectors