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19 Feb 2021 European Aerospace Industry Collapse – What caused it?

Europe was this week devastated with the news that Airbus is to close all its European plants except its A380 superjumbo line. The economy of Hamburg will be badly affected, but less so than that of Toulouse where Airbus has been the only large employer since the late 1990’s. People are predicting a ghost-town in Toulouse, a city that already suffered from the wholesale out-sourcing of IT to India and China during the last decade. Already a spate of strikes and civil unrest has been plaguing the city. The social consequences of this latest news are frightening. But Toulouse is just one casualty of Airbus downsizing – aerospace is known for the complex network of organisations involved in the supply chain. Nearly every aerospace and defence company in Europe has been, and will continue to be badly hit by Airbus’ failures. The ramifications across Europe are enormous.

The defining event to which most industry observers point was the launch of the MRJ in 2008. This was the first aircraft for a newly formed Mitsubishi-Toyota joint venture, the organisation which subsequently became Associated Aircraft Producers (AAP), and significantly was the first commercial aircraft delivered on time in over 20 years. Not only that, but it met all its performance guarantees.

At launch the AAP20 reportedly had costs of production unmatchable by the A320 and 737 which meant that Boeing and Airbus were unable to match the price. AAP is quoted as saying that its advanced production techniques resulted in build costs of around 60% of those of its competitors.

Subsequent investigation into the decline of Boeing and Airbus reveals clues to the current situation were present more than 20 years before the MRJ and AAP came onto the scene. In the late 90’s Boeing brought in some of Toyota’s production system experts to sort out their B717 production facility in Long Beach, giving them firsthand knowledge of how to run a large commercial aircraft final assembly line. Around the same time, in the late 90’s Toyota began recruiting aeronautical engineers and in 2002 was spotted testing its TAPA, a 12-seat composite-fuselage jet over the Mojave Desert, USA. In 2005, just as Toyota was about to displace GM from its 70-year perch as the world’s number one auto-maker it reportedly had more money in the bank than all big-4 US automakers put together.

Now with the benefit of hindsight we can see the effects of the blinkered views of Boeing and Airbus executives around the turn of the century: They clearly believed they were in a two-horse race – the Airbus strategy had for some time been “Beat Boeing”, Boeing responded to the upstart Airbus by whingeing to its government about subsidies being given to Airbus, almost causing a trade-war between the USA and EU.

With Airbus attempting to develop more programmes than it could manage, Boeing was set to reap the returns from the 787. What happened next is the stuff of legend: Development and production problems beset the 787 like no programme before it. Some Airbus executives have claimed that Boeing tried to do with one giant leap what Airbus had gradually been stepping through over the previous 20 years.

By the time the first AAP20 was delivered, neither Boeing nor Airbus were in a fit state to respond, both dealing with lack-lustre sales/deliveries of their new aircraft and their cash-cow workhorse market decimated.

Leaving aside the global strategic and political issues, could Boeing and Airbus have done anything themselves to reduce the future damage? Most industry commentators suggest that they could, but it was a case of too little, too late.

This 20-year-old quote from Fujio Cho, then president of Toyota Motor Company comes to mind: “We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes – while our competitors get average or worse results from brilliant people managing broken processes”

This is an extract from an article I am currently writing. Interested in your comments.

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