When Airbus was created four decades ago, Europe's civil aircraft manufacturing sector looked very different to today. But one thing is as true now as it was then - France and Germany were the power behind the organisation.

As Europe's aircraft manufacturers reeled from a decade dominated by US rivals, it was clear that collaboration was the way forward. Although this had begun in earnest with the Anglo/French Concorde, this ground-breaking project was fast proving to be a blueprint in how not to do collaboration.

Air France Airbus A380, ©Airbus
A380 problems at Airbus led to a series of shake-ups. Picture: Airbus 

But while the glamorous delta-winged airliner promised to propel Europe to the forefront of the supersonic era, if and when it materialised, it was clear to many that something more rudimentary was needed in the subsonic sector.

"There was no European manufacturer that had ongoing designs or manufacture of an aircraft that could effectively compete worldwide with the American products," Roger Béteille, founding Airbus Industrie executive and former president, told Flight International a decade ago.

Faced with what seemed like unstoppable passenger growth, all Europe's leading airlines had similar requirements for the 1970s - a 250- to 300-seat, twin-aisle "air bus" to fly their short-haul trunk routes between capital cities.

Europe's state-owned airlines had two choices, turn again to the US airframers (in this case Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas) - or champion the creation of a home-grown rival. The latter option prevailed, and Europe's various widebody airliner project studies were drawn together into single offering that crystalised as the A-300 in September 1967, when an inter-governmental memorandum of understanding was signed between France, Germany and the UK. The MoU also stipulated that the A-300 would not be launched unless the three national airlines, Air France, BEA and Lufthansa, agreed together to buy a minimum of 75 aircraft.

By the time the go-ahead for this project was cemented with the creation of Airbus Industrie on 18 December 1970, the UK had dropped out as a partner because of its concerns over the market prospects for what was to become the world's first widebody twinjet. Crucially, Hawker Siddeley remained on the A-300 programme as a subcontractor, with responsibility for the wings and a 20% share of the widebody's production.

Airbus Boeing deliveries, 1997-2010, ©Tim Brown, F

Airbus Industrie was created under French law as a Franco/German 50/50 partnership or Groupement d'Iterêt Economique. Spain joined in 1971 taking a 4.2% share. This GIE structure would serve it well for 30 years, until Airbus's integration into a single company in 2001.

With Aerospatiale chairman Henri Ziegler at its helm, Airbus settled down at its Toulouse headquarters in France to build and deliver its first product - albeit in the shadow of the more sexy Concorde programme that was going on next door.

The A300B entered service with Air France in 1974 and, after a slow start, finally began to attract the kind of sales outside its home territories that had been denied to most previous European airliners. As the 1970s drew to a close, the UK manufacturing sector, which had consolidated as British Aerospace, wanted to formalise its production subcontract, so negotiated a 20% stake in the consortium and the Franco/German shareholdings were adjusted appropriately.

The A310 "shrink" arrived in 1983, and this later became the first airliner to have a primary structure (the fin) made of carbonfibre. Airbus then took its boldest step yet with the decision to enter the somewhat crowded - and US dominated - narrowbody sector with the A320.

In parallel with the creation of the industry's first all-new single-aisle for a decade, Airbus took a huge technological gamble, deciding to equip the 150-seater with fly-by-wire flight controls - technology that had previously been the preserve of fighter jets and Concorde.

Introduced in 1988, Airbus's A320 gamble paid off, and the hugely successful single-aisle family was central to propelling the consortium towards the market-leading position it achieved in the 21st century.

With its single-aisle foray under way, Airbus - by now headed by the charismatic Jean Pierson - turned its attention to the long-range segment with the introduction of the A340 quad in 1993, and its twin-engined sister with shorter range, the A330, the following year.

Evolutions of these types into the highly successful A330-200 - Airbus's first proper long-range twin - and the enlarged/ultra-long range A340-600 and -500, respectively, finally gave it the product-line spanning 100 to 350 seats that it had yearned - almost.

Airbus had always looked on enviously at Boeing's monopoly in the large airliner sector with its 747 Jumbo Jet. So, by the late 1990s, having propelled itself into a strong second position at the expense of McDonnell Douglas, which became part of Boeing in 1997, Airbus felt ready for its final assault.

After years of studies under the designation A3XX, Airbus finally launched its own superjumbo - the 550-seat A380 - in December 2000, with the backing of commitments from six customers for 50 firm orders.

But rather than being the culmination of Airbus's fight, it was just the start.

By the end of the 20th century, the airliner market had boiled down to a duopoly, and as Airbus began its ambitious new project, the original GIE structure was beginning to creak. Three of the four shareholders had themselves come together to form the Franco/German-Spanish EADS conglomerate, which simplified the ownership, so the next step was to integrate the many parts of Airbus itself into a single unit and eliminate national boundaries.

This was achieved, on paper at least, in 2001, but it would take many more years, and a near disaster with A380 production through mismanagement of the partner divisions, for the integration goal to be fully realised.

But amid the crisis, Airbus had finally established itself as the market leader by a measure that even its rival could not dispute - output. Airbus broke through the threshold in 2003, when it delivered 24 more airliners than Boeing's total, and has kept this lead throughout the decade.

This success went down like a dose of salt in Seattle, prompting the USA to finally lose patience with what it saw as a state-subsidised European job-creation scheme and file a complaint to the World Trade Organisation. Europe issued a counter-claim, pointing to Boeing's federal and research grants funding. Adding to Boeing's frustration was Airbus's victory, albeit brief, in the US Air Force's KC-X tanker competition.

Round one of the WTO fight went the USA's way, but the row rumbles on as the verdict of Europe's counter-case is awaited.

Boeing's product development was not making life easy for Airbus either. Just as Toulouse thought it had got the measure of its US rival, Boeing struck back with a successful update of the 777 and its radical 787 twinjet, forcing Airbus into a flat spin as it tried to work out how to respond.

As Airbus watched market share sliding away, it came up with a widebody of its own, dubbed the A350. But it took several attempts, and some very public trips down blind alleys, before the programme crystalised into the now successful XWB family.

The A380 production problems broke in 2005 and the situation seemed to worsen with every update.

Around about that time, Noel Forgeard - who had succeeded Pierson as boss of Airbus in 1998 - was promoted to co-chief executive of EADS, alongside defence division head Tom Enders, and replaced at Airbus by chief operating officer Gustav Humbert.

The A380 problems, combined with A350 indecision, served to magnify ongoing Airbus and EADS management issues and led to a series of shake-ups.

Forgeard and Humbert became the first casualties in 2006 when they were replaced by former Aerospatiale boss Louis Gallois and French industrialist Christian Streiff, respectively. But Streiff only lasted four months, with Gallois succeeding him in the interim until the final reshuffle in July 2007, when Enders took the helm. The straight-talking German brought a breath of fresh air with him to Toulouse as he buckled down to resolving the A380 production crisis, which he summarises simply: "We underestimated the complexity of the aircraft and had to adapt."

The key part of the jigsaw in the current reshaping of Airbus occurred in 2006, when BAE Systems - which had been angered at the way Airbus had handled the A380 crisis, called time on its involvement and sold its 20% stake to its majority partner, making EADS the sole owner.

Amid the management crisis and BAE's departure, Airbus launched its "Power8" cost-reduction and reorganisation drive in 2007 as it tried to counter the weak dollar and shake off the last remnants of the old GIE trading arrangements.

The plan involved staff cuts and the sell-off of non-core factories - a process that, three years on, is only half completed. These businesses have been spun off into separate companies - France's Aerolia and Premium Aerotec of Germany - but the global banking crisis forced Airbus to abort the sell-offs, which will be revived when opportunity prevails.

The turmoil Airbus has suffered during recent years has not been limited purely to A380, management and cost-reduction issues. When, in 1998, the airframer took over the management of the former Future Large Aircraft programme, which it renamed A400M, little could it have imagined the move into the military sector would threaten its very future.

That programme has proved just as difficult to manage as the A380 - although some of the A400M problems were not entirely of Airbus's making - but it now looks to be finally on the right track, if delayed and well over budget.

So, as Airbus celebrates its 40th year, and EADS its 10th anniversary, there are many challenges ahead. The company must balance the completion of its mission to fix the A380, while preparing the A400M transport for military service and bringing the A350 into production.

But the superjumbo remains in sharp focus, says Enders: "We must not take attention away from the A380. It is still a very challenging phase as we ramp up and manage the supply chain."

Source: Flight International