The flying salesman

Published On: February 3, 2018 12:59 AM NPT By: Hemant Arjyal

Leahy earned so much notoriety that Boeing kept constant tab on his movements as he travelled almost 200 days in a year

This piece is devoted to John Leahy [right in the picture above], the salesman of Airbus who literally ended the world monopoly of the aircraft maker Boeing. Interestingly Leahy happens to be an American himself. Leahy will be retiring from this month having associated with the Airbus for over 33 years. What he helped Airbus achieve was not a small feat. Ironically, Airbus Board was sceptical about his “minimum” 50 percent market share he dreamt of achieving by year 2000. It looked utterly unrealistic with Airbus sales hovering at about 18 percent, ranked a dismal third in 1994. Leahy was, apparently, in his elements, trying to convenience the board as if it was a prospective buyer. 

There are quite a few articles and interviews on John Leahy, mostly in business and aviation magazines and forums focusing on highs-n-lows of his long tenure. Based on this, this piece tries to present a comprehensive image of John Leahy, his dedication and vision that worked wonders for Airbus in achieving the impossible. It is more significant given the weak situation it was in before he was moved to headquarters at Toulouse (France) as the chief of worldwide sales in 1994. This one on Leahy is justified as like that on Richard Branson and Michael O’Leary earlier since it was he who undisputedly moulded Airbus than the other way around. Before 1985 John Leahy worked as salesman for Piper Aircrafts selling its small aircraft. Being a pilot he loved personally flying aircraft on deliveries to corporate and individual clients and was contrastingly a better salesperson. 
Airbus was begun as a consortium of three European countries in 1967 to manufacture passenger airliner. The very first aircraft it built was an A300, a wide-body encroaching upon the market of other wide-bodies like DC-10/L-1011 and even B747s. It was a risky venture but Airbus was not going anywhere without taking risks. While A300 was not a great commercial success it was still able to establish a small foothold in the US market. It was a significant departure in an otherwise a total American monopoly in all things aviation. Airbus had somehow managed to loan some A300s to Eastern Airlines as inducement sample and this was before Leahy. It was an advantage that A300 had many innovative features incorporated in its making that were developed for supersonic Concorde. Incidentally, A300 was not only a first ever twin engine wide-body but also one manned by two crews in the cockpit instead of three. 

Good salesman
Leahy’s first successful venture was selling A320s to North-West Airlines then to United Airlines. This was a herculean task as it had to stand against the giant of the market the stubby and very noisy B737. The dominant single aisle had been carrying passengers since 1968, seventeen years before Leahy joined Airbus. But A320 came with innovative glass cockpit with electronic controls or fly-by-wire that eliminated the use of control cables altogether. A320 also had software features that greatly enhanced safety. But it was a master stroke that Leahy agreeing to lease 25/A300 to American Airlines (AA) under “walk-away” modality such that the airline could just return them if it did not like them after five years of use. AA not only took the 25 but even ordered 10 more. 
Leahy sold over 20,000 aircrafts during his tenure amounting to over one trillion dollars. He was an embodiment of continuation having worked with six Airbus CEOs and outlasting about eight chief of sales at Boeing. This was very crucial from point of establishing rapport with various airlines executives whether or not they were Airbus clients. 

Leahy took air shows as nothing more than deadline to announce big orders. But he disliked air shows as they were at times very wet or extremely hot or cold and even windy and very crowded that you never have enough time for serious negotiations. He earned so much notoriety that Boeing kept constant tab on his movements as he travelled almost 200 days in a year. He preferred using passenger airlines, whenever possible, even if he had private executive jet at his disposal. This helped him to get direct feedback from the passengers on Airbus’s product. But it does not tell if he ever flew economy. 

The recent A380 sales debacle for additional frames for Emirates was nothing more than upping of negotiation ante. It was projected as if it was to be his final report card. The Dubai debacle was just a ploy to make Airbus blink first. Possibly, as a tit for tat, there were two threatening public salvos from Leahy not long ago. He declared (a) stopping of the production line if the Emirates order did not come by and (b) that selling price for new orders was upped by a clean two percent. Well, it seem to have done the trick as barely a day or two later we saw a MOU for 16 firm and 20 additional frame options was signed as if nothing bitter had ever happened between them. 

Setting the record 
Naturally, this provides the lease of life for the A380 which was declared as good as dead by many aviation pundits. In fact, it is not just alive but will be kicking well until 2026/28. And by that time, as forecasted, major airports clutter will get far worse creating a situation ideal for demand for high volume aircraft. The interim period will also provide favourable time to think, develop and produce a new engine making future launching of A380Neo a likely possibility. The deal for 20 frames was worth 16 billion dollars adding more to the trillion already in John Leahy’s portfolio. One wonders if any salesman will ever beat this record. It will remain unbeaten as no one will possibly ever last that long in the job given the ups and downs or sale as many as he did.

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