We have always had a culture of innovation, says Airbus Marketing Director

Having won the most orders and delivered the most commercial aircraft in nine of the last 10 years, aircraft manufacturer Airbus says that it has established itself as the leader in designing, building and supporting the world’s most modern airliners.

The company is also geared to meet growing challenges while recognising the necessity to continue to innovate and focus on satisfying the needs of customers. David Velupillai, Marketing Director, Customer Affairs, Airbus S.A.S., spoke to The Hindu at Airbus’s plant in Toulouse, France, recently on the company’s range of aircraft, especially its mainstay, the Airbus A320 family, and the road ahead. Excerpts from the interview:

Airbus said that it would deliver 580 jets in 2012, but Boeing is catching up ...

With the delivery of around 580 aircraft in 2012, it will be a new record for the company. Having won the most orders and delivered the most aircraft in nine of the last 10 years, Airbus has established itself as the leader in designing, building and supporting the world’s most modern airliners. Airbus’s newest aircraft, the A350, is moving forward in its schedule.

But a top company official has said that the first flight is not going to be easy, though reachable …

We have extensive flight-test instrumentation to install, as well as finalising assembly and testing of the first A350, ahead of its first flight in the middle of 2013. Then, there will be a comprehensive flight-test programme before we achieve certification and begin deliveries to customers, which will be in the second-half of 2014. New aircraft programmes are always a challenge, but what is important is to create an aircraft that has great economics and is attractive to passengers, so that it is successful in the long-term.

The Airbus A330 is another best-seller. How much of a challenge does it face from the Boeing 777?

The Airbus A330 is not just a best-seller. It is the best-seller, because, together with the A340, with which it was launched as a joint programme, it has won the most orders of any wide-body in history, that is, more than Boeing’s aircraft. It is also being produced at the fastest rate of any wide-body — nine aircraft a month, rising to 10 a month during 2013. We have improved it a lot since its introduction.

Our A330 and A350 family already offer airlines a wide spread of aircraft sizes and ranges that compete well with existing aircraft, such as Boeing’s 777, as well as future versions that may eventually evolve.

The mainstay of Airbus, the very successful A320 family, is in the limelight with its ‘sharklet’ winglets and new engine options. But, as an aircraft, it is a design that is about 24 years old. Will there be a major revamp?

With more than 8,800 orders to date and over 375 customers and operators, the Airbus A320 family is indeed a great success story. We have always had a culture of innovation, which dates back to our inception in the early 1970s. Our latest innovation, which brings a very worthwhile 4 per cent fuel saving, is the ‘sharklets.’ We have just delivered the very first A320 with “sharklets” to AirAsia. In 2015, we will begin delivering a new engine option which, together with the “sharklets,” will give airlines an amazing 15 per cent fuel saving. Remember also that the A320’s competitor, the Boeing 737, entered service some 45 years ago, in 1968. So the Airbus A320 started out being the most modern in its class, and the latest improvements are ensuring that it stays that way. Airbus also offers private jet versions.

Though Airbus has a plant in China, predominantly for that market, China has indicated its intention to move ahead with its own aircraft programme to challenge Airbus and Boeing. Your comments.

It has taken Airbus several decades and tens of billions of dollars to create the world’s most modern airliner family. New entrants face a similar challenge. In the meantime, we can offer a comprehensive range of aircraft that can satisfy every airline need in the market above 100 seats. We are aware of the challenge from newcomers, and recognise that to remain successful in the long-term, we need to continue to innovate and focus on satisfying the needs of customers.

Is there anything for India? Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) does make some components. Separately, there is also the maintenance, repair and overhaul segment. What about technology transfer and offsets?

Airbus has a strong market presence in India with most of the airlines, and it also has a big footprint on the ground. HAL is doing a lot of work. For example, it is producing a large number of passenger doors for the Airbus A320 family, which we are now assembling at the rate of one aircraft every 7.5 working hours or 42 aircraft a month. We also have industrial cooperation with many other Indian companies. In addition, Airbus has invested in both engineering and training centres in Bangalore.

The biggest deal in Indian civil aviation history, the Air India aircraft order, went predominantly to Boeing. Does Airbus look to winning a major large aircraft deal? Are there any possibilities with the A350?

Air India is a big operator of Airbus aircraft. There are also private airlines such as Indigo, with 280 orders and Go Air, with 87. In addition, there is Jet Airways. So, Airbus does have a very strong presence in India, and with the modern and comprehensive family that we have today, we expect it to stay that way in future!

The Indian Air Force appears to be leaning towards the A330 MRTT even after re-bidding.

The Airbus A330-200 MRTT (multi-role tanker transport) can be both an air-to-air re-fueller and a transport aircraft because, unlike traditional tanker aircraft, it carries all of its fuel in the wings and tail. This allows it to transport troops and cargo when it is not carrying out air-to-air refuelling, making it the most versatile tanker aircraft in the world. It has already been ordered by several air forces around the world, including those in Australia, the Middle East and the U.K. and, as recent articles have reported, has also found favour with the Indian Air Force.

Together with new engine technologies, how promising is the bio-fuels programme?

As a forward-looking company, we undertake and promote research in many fields, of which bio-fuels are just one example. Time will tell to what extent bio-fuels are the way forward. In the meantime, we remain focussed on delivering the world’s most economical and comfortable airliners.

Airbus has also thought of radical concepts for futuristic air travel. When will these fructify?

We are in a long-term business, because an airliner typically has a life of 20-25 years and may remain in production for even longer than that. So, we continue to explore technologies of many kinds, implementing today those that are mature and have bought their way on to our aircraft by delivering worthwhile benefits as well as developing those with long-term potential.

(The correspondent was in Toulouse at the invitation of AirAsia Berhad.)

murali.nky@thehindu.co.in

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