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INTERVIEW: Airbus chief Humbert

Gustav Humbert was in Dubai last week to attend his first air show as chief executive of Airbus. When he took over the reins in Toulouse from Noel Forgeard in June, he scored several firsts. A German who was Forgeard’s number two for five years, he is the first non-Frenchman to run the company – something that raised a few Gallic hackles among those who consider Airbus their national champion. He is also the first chief executive to assume the role at a time when the European manufacturer is the undisputed number one in output and deliveries, having eclipsed rival Boeing in recent years.

HUMBERTTaking over when Airbus is on top means there is only one way to go, and Humbert has also been handed the potentially hazardous tasks of overseeing certification and entry into service of the A380 and the development of the A350. Significantly, the latter is the first aircraft type that Airbus has had to create as a major derivative of an existing model in response to an all-new Boeing – the 787.

An engineer, who began his career as a university professor before joining Airbus’s German predecessor, Humbert secured the Airbus job instead of Frenchman Fabrice Bregier, the high-flying head of EADS’s Eurocopter division, who many considered the favourite, and several Airbus executives. Less charismatic than Forgeard – now EADS co-chief executive – or the man Forgeard succeeded in 1998, Jean Pierson, Humbert is seen as a competent technocrat. He says his vision for the European manufacturer is no different from his predecessor’s: “To make Airbus the world’s number one manufacturer in terms of output, profitability, customer satisfaction and innovation.”

More deliveries

Airbus will deliver more airliners than its rival in 2005 for the third consecutive year – a situation that is likely to continue for at least two more years. However, Humbert is already all but conceding 2005’s order intake laurels to Boeing, after several years of dominance: “This year it is very likely that Boeing will have a little more orders than us, but what is more important is that we have a good level of profitability and are within the 40-60% market share bracket. We can live with one or two years with a lower order intake [than Boeing] as our backlog is strong,” he says.

Whatever happens, Humbert believes it is likely that between them, Airbus and Boeing will set a new high-water mark for airliner orders this year, beyond 1989’s long-standing record of over 1,600 aircraft. “It is mathematically logical that next year will see an order drop-off to the 700-800 combined annual order level that is more typical,” he says.

Airbus will deliver 370 aircraft this year, against 290 from Seattle, and Humbert says deliveries will grow by “at least 10% in 2006 to more than 400 aircraft”, which should again be more than the opposition. This will be driven primarily by the expansion of A320 family monthly production to 30 aircraft in 2006 and an all-time jet airliner world record of 32 aircraft in 2007. A330/A340 production will also reach an all-time high of eight a month next year.

Significantly, Humbert says the 2006 delivery tally will include the first two A380s for launch operator Singapore Airlines which are due to be handed over towards the end of the year. However, a large chunk of flight testing, as well as the certification programme, must be completed between now and that historic event. It has been a bumpy ride for the A380 so far, with the aircraft already running six months behind schedule and compensation settlements to be negotiated next year for delayed deliveries with the launch airlines.

Humbert’s Airbus production management background has stood him in good stead to oversee the move to a higher gear, in which he had been directly involved in his previous job as chief operating officer.

“With the production ramp-up, we will adopt a higher degree of industrial co-operation. A major part of our industrial growth will be undertaken by outside suppliers, with the objective to open up new markets,” he says, naming key regions targeted as China, India and Russia. Humbert says industrial outsourcing on the A350 will be “around 50%”, compared with 40% on the A380, and adds: “On the next all-new Airbus, it will be higher still.”

Growing faster

He stresses: “We will keep the industrial resources we have today, but will grow much faster and bigger with outside suppliers.”

One major issue that shows no sign of abating is the transatlantic row over subsidies, with the US claims and European Union counter-claims currently being examined by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Humbert has a clear view on how this must be resolved: “You will never have a legal solution to this problem – it does not make any sense to have hundreds of lawyers debating this at the WTO in Geneva. The EU and USA should sit down and negotiate a political solution. Airbus will accept whatever the solution is, as long as it is a level playing field.”

One area where Humbert believes Airbus and its rival are now more in agreement is on the market for very large aircraft, following Boeing’s launch of the 450-seat 747-8 family. “We congratulate Boeing for following the Airbus market view on large-aircraft demand,” he says.

While Humbert does not see the 747-8 passenger model having much prospect of seriously denting the A380’s success, he does concede that the freighter “might be a competitor as cargo doesn’t care about being carried in a 30-year-old aircraft, but passengers do”.

MAX KINGSLEY-JONES / DUBAI

 

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