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Airbus: Launching A320neo versus Boeing 737

Former Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Airbus & Former CEO at MBDA

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Outlook on travel demand for both leisure and business travelers
  • Potential aircraft order deferrals and cancellations of the MAX
  • Founding story of Airbus and MBDA
  • Lessons from the MAX crisis and strategic options available to Boeing
  • Launching the A320neo to compete with 737

Executive Bio

Marwan Lahoud

Former Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Airbus & Former CEO at MBDA

From 2007 to 2017 Marwan served as Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer of Airbus and was a member of the Group Executive Committee. Marwan is credited with having been the chief architect behind the creation of both Airbus and MBDA and also a key individual in the decision to re-engine the A320ceo to launch the A320neo. He led the strategic and international development of Airbus to position it as a global enterprise: during his tenure, the order book of the business grew from €265bn to more than €1,000bn. Previously, Marwan served as CEO of MBDA, the global missile systems company jointly owned by Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo. Having begun his career at the French Ministry of Defense in 1989, Marwan was appointed Special Advisor to the Ministry in 1995. Read more

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Interview Transcript

The worst case is never certain. When, a few years ago, we were studying with Laurence, amongst others, it would be on the threats on the aviation industry and Airbus. A typical framework for analyzing threats is that you look at geopolitical or geoeconomical scenarios and then you will see the impact on your industry. For instance, we were talking about war, in the Middle East, a large recession in China, due to health problems. We were talking about a big recession, in North America, due to a financial crisis. We studied those scenarios, one by one and said, okay, here the impact would be 5% on the overall industry; it would be important on the A380; it would not affect this type of aviation. We always concluded those studies by saying, yes, the assumption here is that we have this crisis alone, and we don’t have a combination of issues. We have never taken, as an assumption, that there would be something that would affect the world, as a whole.

So the worst is never certain, but sometimes it happens.

Black Swan.

Yes. What happens here is that, for the first time since 1945, the world economy is at a stop. We are left with one question – how will the survivors restart? This question is a double question. First, when we say survivors, how do we survive? Second, how do we resume activity? How do we restart? How do we regenerate business, growth, activity and what will the world look like tomorrow, after Covid?

Maybe I can narrow that down for aviation, for my sector of activity, where I have spent a lot of time. It is clear that we will not travel in 2024 like we used to travel in 2014. The travel will be of a different kind. Obviously, we will need to revisit how we organize our airports, how we organize the seating in the planes. All these distancing measures will have an impact on the way we do travel. I read a comment by the CEO of IATA, the association of airlines, yesterday or the day before, saying, the era of cheap travel tickets is over.

What is behind that? You have to realize that, up to now, in the planes of all airlines around the planet, you had two types of customers. You had the, call it the leisure customer, and you had the high-yield customer. The high-yield customer is a customer who is paying the price to travel. The airlines were making their money on this high-yield customer. Why is this customer paying a price with margin, above the cost? Because he’s travelling, not for leisure, but for necessity. What has developed the volume in the airline industry is the customer who travels for leisure and not the customer who travels for necessity.

I’m not saying that tomorrow we will no longer have people who travel for leisure, but we will have less people travelling for leisure. The impact of that is going to be massive on the long-range travel. Firstly, because you have many more people travelling to visit exotic places on long-range. But it will also impact the domestic travel. It will not affect the shuttles between, say, London and Paris or Washington and New York, because this is mainly business, mainly necessity. But you will have much fewer people flying from, say, Paris to Nice or Washington to Denver.

That’s mainly because of the price or also, because of the behavior?

It’s a behavioral change. The people who travel will, even more than before, travel for necessity. They will pay the price, but you will have less people in the planes. This is how I foresee it. There is nothing more difficult to predict than the future, but it seems to make sense to me, at least in the medium term. We may recover, but the recovery will be long.

If we translate that into figures, I believe that, in the best case, for short-range, such as commuting, we should be back to the levels of 2019, somewhere in 2024/2025. Best case. The worst case, in my view, would be 20% less, by that timeframe and, beyond that, it’s too long for me to consider. It gives a view on how this industry should be shaped, or reshaped. If you take that as an assumption and take it down airline by airline, OEM by OEM, supplier by supplier, you can easily predict what is going to happen.

In a sense, this should not be seen as a surprise. What is the main characteristic of this industry? The main characteristic of this industry is that, except for sudden disruptions, like Covid, evolution is always slow. When you have no disruption, if it goes up, it goes up slowly, but steadily. Then poof, and then again, it goes up. My analysis is that mankind will continue to travel and mankind will continue to fly to travel, but from a behavioral standpoint, the impact on commuting is going to be the one I described. It’s more difficult to predict for long-range, going from one continent to another or crossing the oceans. I think, there, the reduction will be much bigger. In my view, in the worst-case scenario, it’s a 50% reduction.

Looking at the airframers and either the A320s or the 737s that you produce, per month, I think Airbus increased their targets in February and those targets are 63. What is your estimate that that could decrease to?

They never reached 63. They just said, our target is 63. I believe that they will be back to their levels of production of today, something in the range of 52/53, by 2024.

So we’re going to see a huge oversupply of aircraft?

Today, what they have decided is, they have revised the 63 target to say it’s 40, for the year. An average of 40, a month, between March and December. It doesn’t mean that they are producing 40 today. Possibly, they will produce 100 A320s in December, and you just average it down and you have this 40 level. I think they will be back to 55 in 2024.

Is there an oversupply of planes? The question is, when do you buy new planes? You buy new planes for two reasons. One, you establish new connections. In my view, this is not going to happen soon. The second case is when you have to replace old planes. This is where the 40 number comes from. This is where my 55 in 2023/2024 comes from.

Given your experience in dealing with the airlines, how would an airline be looking at taking orders and these two decisions? Let’s say they won’t be making new connections right now, but what about shifting from older planes to newer planes?

It was a necessity when you were looking to reduce your operating costs and when the oil price was positive. The oil price is positive. We are talking about WTI and you know it’s the future. It’s very easy to say, oil is worth nothing, because the future is negative, but it doesn’t mean that. This is going to continue, even though it’s not going to continue as acutely as before. People will say, I want to make savings on my running costs, but I’m not going to invest hundreds of millions unless I’m sure that I have a return. So it’s going to reduce.

There is another dimension that was never there before. Assume that there are rules of distancing in the planes. Airlines will have to revisit their cabins.

Do you think this is likely?

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Airbus: Launching A320neo versus Boeing 737

April 17, 2020

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