The Europeans finally have a plane to compete commercially with the American-manufactured aircraft.
Although the Airbus has not yet made major inroads in the United States--so far, Eastern is the only American airline to purchase any -- a superior service record, popularity with passengers, and fuel-efficient ahd quite operations have guaranteed it a level of commercial success that has made Europeans practically euphoric.
Unquestionably, the Europeans have been leaders in aviation technology; they invented the jet engine, first mass-produced a jet fighter, developed the swept wing and fully automated landings, produced the turboprop and the first commercial jet, and developed, despite its economic problems, the first superosonic airplane. But perhaps because of the way U.S. aircraft firms are structured and the large primary market they sell to, single European companies have never been able to produce and market a plane that would make a significant dent in the world plane sales and American aircraft companies traditionally have dominated.
Now, all that is being changed by the Airbus, a twin-engine, medium-range wide-bodied plane built by an unusual multi-nation consortium and assembled here at Toulouse in the southwest of France about 80 miles from the Spanish border.
The growing success of the Airbus can't be denied. At the Paris Air Show two years ago, just 62 Airbuses had been sold to 10 customers; at this year's show, Airbus Industrie could boast that 28 customers have ordered 352 planes altogether, including 219 firm orders and 133 options. Of these, 69 planes already have been delivered and are in service.
The only problem appearing to face Airbus partners right now is one generated by success: how to gear up to produce all the planes that airlines and world over want to buy. The assembly plant here is just turning out planes at the rate of two and a half a month right now, compared with 26 and half a month at Boeing, considered its major competitor. By instituting double shifts, Airbus officials hope to produce six a month by 1982 and eight a month by 1983.
But that's a complicated business; work on the assembly line here in Toulouse represents just 3 percent to 5 percent of the total production work on the plane. The major manufacturing takes place in Great Britain, Germany, Spain and Holland at plants operated by Airbus' major partners, not to mention the engines which are made by two American firms, General Electric or Pratt & Whitney, in conjuction with French and German companies. a recent Airbus agreement with Rolls-Royce will allow future Airbus buyers to select the British-made engines but that requires certification and is at least three years away.
All the finished parts of the plane are transported to the final assembly line in Toulouse by two Super-Guppy cargo planes. The wings come from a plant in England; the rear and center portions of the fuselage and the cone are made in two facilities in different cities in German; the cockpit and the pylons are produced in two French plants; the flight control system [the moving parts of the wings] are manufactured in Holland, and the horizontal stabilizer and a couple of doors are produced in Spain.
Currently, the plane is assembled and painted in 14 weeks here, is test flown for 10 hours, is taken to Bremen, Germany, where the interior is installed, and is sent back here for a brief period for a final checkout before delivery to customers.
Speeding up production is not going to be without its problems, and some question whether Airbus will be able, to meet the demand. It now takes a 36-month lead time for materials to be ordered, and production facilities in the various countries have to be geared up equally. But Airbus officials don't seem to be overly concerned. Roger Beteille executive vice president and general manager, suggested that it is the responsibility of each partner to produce the parts on schedule. "We essentially subcontract out," he said. "It's their problem -- the labor, the materials, and so on -- to meet the schedule."
Workers here at Toulouse have specified hours but work on a bonus system; if they finish the assigned job within the allotted time, they get a 5 percent salary bonus; there is a 10 percent bonus for finishing early. "But there is a limit on that in the aircraft industry because of our insistence on quality," says Beteille. "If they are too fast, something is wrong -- either with the worker or the schedule."
So far, buyers of the Airbus have found little wrong with the work or the schedule. Airbus has not failed to meet a delivery date yet, and officials of the airlines flying the plane keep coming back for more. After flying four Airbus planes on an unusual six-month evalution arrangement, Eastern President Frank Borman called the plane "superb" and ordered a total of 23. Eastern has 7 today, and is scheduled to get 5 more this year.
Two of the planes Eastern will get are on the final preparatory "flight line" here now, along with planes scheduled for delivery to Thai International, Scandanavian, Malaysian and Philippine airlines. One plane -- all white without identifying markings -- belongs to Iran Air, and was bought before the change in government, an Airbus official explained. "we don't know yet what they want us to paint on the side," he said.
Airbus is hoping to line up another U.S. buyer this year, either for the A300 currently in production or the smaller A310 it is gearing up to produce in competition with the Boeing 767. [The A300, which can fly up to 3,000 miles nonstop, can seat up to 345 although most buyers have settled in the 250-seat range; the A310, designed for less dense routes, will seat up to 214 passengers and be equipped with updated technology.]
One inducement to potential U.S. buyers might be the elimination on Jan.1 of the 5 percent duty American buyers now have to pay on every airplane delivered to the United States. This change is part of an agreement on trade of civil aircraft initialed by the U.S. and 13 other nations during the recently concluded Tokyo Round of multilateral tradr negotiations. "it will make the plane $1 million cheaper," says George Warde, a former American Airlines president who is now a senior vice president of Airbus Industrie.
The company was created in December 1970, 18 months after the A300 program was launched by its partners -- then only the French and Germans. Airbus Industrie's partners now include the French Aerospatiale [a 37.9 percent share], the German Deutsche Airbus [37.9 percent] which includes MMB and Vfw-Fokker, the United Kingdom's British Aerospace [20 percent] and Spain's C.A.S.A [4.2 percent]. The Dutch manufacturer Fokker-VFW and Belgian Belairbus are both Airbus Industrie "associates" participating in the 310 program.
"there is no dominant partner, and it really works," Airbus' Beteille says. "When we initially started, there were questions if such a thing could really work, but in the last 12 years we have established practical and pragmatic ways of doing things."
Despite their obivious pride in the European accomplishment, Airbus officials are sensitive to the "foreign-made" charges heard in some American circles, and are quick to point out that a greater proportion of the value of the A300 originated in the U.S. than in any other country. With the investment of the engines [ $5 million a set] and components and parts made by some 300 U.S. companies, the U.S. share of the $25 million plane is one-third. France and Germany each pull in a quarter, and the remaining 17 percent goes to a variety of others.
"it is significant that your country is playing a substantial part in what we do," Beteille told Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Howard W. Cannon [D-Nev.] on a tour of the Toulouse facilities. U.S. content in Airbus planes has meant five years' workers, he contended. [They also point to the large portions of the Boeing 767 that will be produced by Japanese, Italian and Canadian firms.]
Airbus officials also argue that a strong European industry is good for U.S. companies, providing them with the competitive stimulus to develop planes using the latest technology. Other benefits include the cross-fertilization of ideas and the value of having different approaches to problems turn up new solutions, they say. "What would the airlines be if ther had to rely on only one dominant manufacturer?" Beteille asks.
Cannon didn't need to be convinced. "No one nation, including the United States, should have a monopoly on technology development," he had told dignitaries when opening the U.S. Pavilion at the Air Show as President Carter's special representative. "The U.S. was nurtured on the principle that competition is the greatest catalyst for economic and scientific growth.
"the increasing competition in aerospace technology . . . is not only desirable, it is invigorating," Cannon commented.
After the tour here, Cannon said he was impressed with the plane and its cooperative production. "The Americans have really dominated the market commercial aviation for years," he said. "I think this is going to give the Europeans a plane that will be competitive with U.S. production.
HOWEVER, OFFICIALS OF U.S. aircraft companies, whose sales in the past have accounted for 80 percent to 90 percent of the world market, continue to worry about the Inroads Airbus is making -- complaining, for instance, of their "aggressive marketing tatics" and pointing out that Airbus gained more than one-third of the worldwide wide-bodied aircraft sales made in the last 18 months. Airbus officials have set their sights for one-quarter of the world market over the next 15 years, a target more than 600 orders away. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, The Airbus being assembled in Toulouse, France, and Taking off: Jetliner's plusses guarantee a level of commercial success. Airbus Industrie; Picture 3, Air bus Industrie's Roger Beteille [left], Sen. Howard W. Cannon and Aerospatiale's Jean Pierson. Airbus Industrie