Amid the howl of jet engines at the Farnborough Airshow, Airbus on Monday began to edge out of the crisis that has engulfed its operations.
Christian Streiff, the new chief executive, picked an aeronautical metaphor to describe his first weeks in charge of the company, saying he was on “a kind of vertical take-off, with full thrust, with a full load on the shoulders and with a lot of noise and speed”.
Mr Streiff admitted the company was in the middle of a “serious crisis” but promised a personal regime of 16-hour days through to the autumn to get on top of the job.
On Monday he met his first inherited deadline, unveiling, as promised, a proposal for a new large jet programme – the A350 XWB (extra-wide body) – aimed at re-establishing the group’s credibility in the world market.
Airbus and its parent EADS have been hit by a profits warning, desertion by key customers because of inadequate new product planning, embarrassing delays in its A380 superjumbo programme and the ousting of Mr Streiff’s predecessor Gustav Humbert as well as Noël Forgeard, EADS co-chief executive.
In the heat of Farnborough and watched by rivals and allies, suppliers, politicians and media, Airbus began what it hopes will be its fightback with the first details of the A350 XWB – a $10bn (£5.5bn) development programme for a 250-350 seat, long-range airliner designed to rival Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. But with the new model not due until 2012 – four years later than the 787 – it may be as well that, in Mr Streiff’s words, Airbus is “learning to be humble”.
Mr Streiff admitted Boeing had been “taking advantage of this situation”. Alan Mulally, chief executive of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, said he felt “compassion” for Airbus’s predicament before cheerfully pouring doubt on Airbus’s plans.
Mr Streiff indicated that Airbus hoped to have a solid recovery programme in place within three months to secure the delivery schedule for the A380 superjumbo.
An ambitious cost-saving programme, expected by analysts to seek to cut costs by billions of euros, is due later this year.
On Monday the British government also announced a preliminary agreement on a series of measures with EADS to safeguard UK interests should BAE Systems go ahead with the sale of its 20 per cent stake in Airbus.
Alistair Darling, UK trade and industry secretary, who met EADS and Airbus management on Monday with his fellow ministers from France, Germany and Spain, said EADS was planning to establish a research and development centre in the UK. It already has such centres in Germany, France and Spain.
EADS was open to the appointment of a British national to its board for the first time. It would consider a secondary listing for its shares on the London Stock Exchange and it was expected that previous guarantees on the UK’s share of the work on Airbus given to BAE Systems in 2000 would be transferred to the UK government.
But these undertakings are understood to be based on the UK remaining a competitive industrial base, and future programme work beyond the A350 is also likely to be dependent on the UK matching funding by other European governments.
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