Shareholders are expected Wednesday to approve a new French-German team to head the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, (EADS) but a decision on the future leadership of its Airbus subsidiary could be delayed.
EADS is building Airbus' new A380 jumbo airliner
Noel Forgeard, the current French chief executive at Airbus, which is 80 percent owned by EADS, is slated to be installed along with German Thomas Enders, chief of defense operations, as the group's new co-chairmen.
But French and German shareholders, each with a 30-percent stake in EADS, have yet to iron out differences on Forgeard's successor as well as the future balance of power within the group.
EADS directors wrapped up their meeting in late April in Amsterdam with no decision on the next head of the Airbus consortium, which has risen in the industry to challenge the long dominance in the jumbo jet market of the 747, manufactured by US rival Boeing. Nonetheless, two names have surfaced as the potential Airbus chief.
Fabrice Bregier, the current head of Eurocopter, has the backing of German carmaker DaimlerChrysler, an EADS shareholder, provided he is replaced by a German at the helicopter subsidiary. In another scenario, France would agree to let Airbus fall to German leadership by giving the reins to Gustav Humbert, now operational director at the Toulouse-based aircraft company.
If no compromise is reached on Wednesday, a temporary vacancy in the executive suite at Airbus has not been ruled out. In that case, ironically, Airbus would find itself in a similar situation to its US rival, Boeing, which has been without a CEO since the resignation of Harry Stonecipher in March.
If a German is eventually chosen to head Airbus, the announcement may not come until after a May 29 referendum on the European constitution in France in order not to aggravate French national feelings.
The Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger plane, flies past the Pyrenees mountains during its maiden flight, Wednesday April 27, 2005.
Airbus roused French pride on April 25 in Toulouse with the successful maiden flight of its A380, the world's biggest airliner capable of carrying 800 passengers and a key arm in its battle with Boeing. The French government, which is campaigning for a yes vote on the EU constitution, would prefer an announcement on the future leader of Airbus at a later date, an analyst who requested anonymity said. But he added that the leadership of Airbus was not a critical issue in the referendum campaign.
Other proposals in the short term, notably one that would allow Forgeard to wear two hats as EADS co-chairman and Airbus chief, have met with little enthusiasm. In fact, an EADS spokesman in Munich said the agreement between the French and German shareholders bans a leader of the group from also heading one of the subsidiaries.
Enders, who along with Forgeard would replace the outgoing EADS team of Philippe Camus and Rainer Hertrich, recently told the French daily Le Monde that the goal is to preserve Airbus' successful model "which is based on a French-German balance," he said.
"What's important is to choose the best CEO for Airbus ... not whether he is French or German," Enders added.