Airbus was long thought of as the baby of the two businesses. The aircraft manufacturer was founded in 1970 as a joint-venture between France, West Germany, the U.K., and Spain, and long struggled to break into the American market. The U.S. companies swore by Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, who had forged their reputations building bombers during World War II.
Airbus won an initial victory in 1984, when its factories in Toulouse received an order for 28 aircraft for Pan Am, a company that had been a faithful Boeing customer until then. The New York Times praised the decision, proclaiming the European group that had “struggled for a decade to penetrate the American aircraft market,” had succeeded its “coup.” The Europeans triumphed once again in 2009 when Delta Air Lines diversified its suppliers and placed an order with Airbus.
The duopoly now dominates the global air transport market, and the press still like to play on the rivalry and kinship between the two companies. At aviation trade shows in Le Bourget (France), Farnborough (England), Dubai, and Singapore, Airbus and Boeing go head to head in tireless “rounds of negotiations.” But this sales war has no winner. “Since the early 2000s, Airbus has performed just as well as Boeing,” says Bruno Trévidic, aviation specialist for the French daily Les Echos. “The boom in low-cost airlines has played into the hands of Airbus, a company renowned for its mid-haul aircraft, whereas the development of the intercontinental transport sector has helped Boeing, the leader of the long-haul segment.
The statistics confirm the balance. American Airlines – the biggest company of its kind – owns just as many Airbus as Boeing planes. Delta Air Lines, the second-largest, launches one Airbus for every two Boeings, while Air France-KLM, the fifth market leader, prefers two Airbus for every three Boeing. The U.S. manufacturer finished 2017 with 912 commercial aircraft ordered and 763 machines delivered, while its European counterpart totaled 1,109 orders and 718 deliveries.
Airbus Hires in America, and Boeing in France
This Airbus-Boeing rivalry does boil down to a Europe-America face-off, but “the aviation market is global now,” says Bruno Trévidic. “No country makes aircraft on its own anymore.” And an order placed with Airbus last November by U.S. investment firm Indigo Partners proves it. The reactors that will equip the 430 aircraft will be produced by a Connecticut company called Pratt & Whitney. Other components will be manufactured in France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K., before being transported to America and assembled in Mobile, Alabama.
On this former U.S. Air Force base in the southeastern state, 380 employees are responsible for assembling four Airbus mid-haul aircraft per month. Some 40% of the components are now engineered in the United States, where the manufacturer employs 3,200 people across 20 assembly and training sites. Through its suppliers, the European group has created 275,000 indirect jobs in the U.S.A, and contributes 16.5 billion dollars to the American economy every year.
The transnational culture at Airbus contrasts strikingly with the U.S.-centric approach of Boeing. The company does not have a single production site outside of America, but indirectly employs some 30,000 French people and contributes six million dollars annually to the French economy. And it just so happens the landing gear and brakes for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are made in France, while the engines that propel the Boeing 737 are produced by a Franco-American consortium founded by Safran and General Electric.
Article published in the February 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.