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Current Affairs

Opinion: Europe's Trundling Flight of Fancy

The latest production delay for Airbus' super-jumbo sheds light on profound problems faced by the company. Top executives better hurry to find a solution, writes DW's Henrik Böhme.

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There was loud cheering when the world's largest passenger plane -- the Airbus A380 -- took off -- and landed safely four hours later -- for the first time in public in Toulouse, France, in April 2005. There was talk about "Europe's high achiever," about a sign of technological supremacy over the biggest rival, US aircraft maker Boeing. Looking at order books, the cheers seemed justified: Airbus had significantly more than the competitor on the other side of the Atlantic.

And today, 18 months later? Top Airbus officials are now conceding that virtually no product series remains where the company is not lagging behind Boeing. Wiring problems with high-tech planes are now cited over and over again as the only reason for delayed delivery. But that only seems to be half the truth. The problems with the super plane are likely only symptomatic for the overall state of Europe's showcase conglomerate.

Jumping ship?

Ongoing personnel disputes regarding top level posts -- especially between the Germans and the French -- at this most European of all companies have raised doubts about the construct's efficiency. British arms producer BAE Systems, which owned one-fifth of Airbus shares, has had it and is reselling to Airbus parent company EADS. Carmaker DaimlerChrysler also wants to reduce its EADS shares. At the same time, Russia -- via a bank -- has bought 5 percent of EADS shares. That's also causing a certain amount of unrest at the European technology concern, which is involved in the military sector.

The current disaster makes one thing clear in particular: Intoxicated by success, Airbus managers have underestimated their rivals at Boeing. Clearly, the Americans had serious problems. But they did their homework and cured the company -- without having to watch out for national vanities. Airbus officials still point to the enormous problems Boeing faced when launching the 747 jumbo jet. But that happened four decades ago -- at a time when there was no competition. Today, irritated customers, who are put off again and again, have a choice.

Decision time

The real consequences of the Airbus crisis can only be speculated about at this point. Technicians will certainly manage to get the wiring problem under control. But it's already clear that A380 delays can lead to delays for other Airbus projects as well. All resources now have to be deployed to salvage the prestigious project, letting others -- including succeeding generations of bestseller models -- fall by the wayside. Rivals will occupy that niche -- and give the Europeans a headache.

One can only hope that those occupying the executive floors at EADS and Airbus now make the right decisions, and that it doesn't again end with job cuts. Otherwise, the European flight of fancy will end with a crash landing.

Henrik Böhme is a business correspondent for DW-RADIO (win).

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