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Book Review: Boeing Versus Airbus by John Newhouse

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Among the many inside stories recounted in John Newhouse's Boeing Versus Airbus, a fascinating account of the cutthroat battle between the world's dominant commercial aircraft manufacturers, is this account from a 1997 meeting between the chairmen of Airbus and U.S. Airways:

    Discussion then turned to the discount [at which Airbus would sell the planes], at which point [Airbus chairman Jean] Pierson began slowly lowering his trousers and saying, "I have nothing more to give." He then allowed the trousers to fall around his ankles. He had picked his moment carefully. The door to [airline chief Steve] Wolf's office was open, and, Pierson says, "Not only Steve but people in his outer office could see what was happening." Wolf, he says, "took the point, and I said to him, 'Now you can tell those people that Pierson never said no to your chairman.'"

It's that kind of fight – two of the biggest companies in the world, going to extremes to finalize sales, and more importantly, to one-up and outmaneuver the other. Airbus and Boeing are seen not just as aircraft manufacturers but national symbols, and both receive massive subsidies, benefits, and contracts from the European Union and the American government, respectively. The competition between Airbus and Boeing is a political issue as much as a commercial one.

Newhouse, a former New Yorker journalist and policy advisor to the Clinton administration, used his access to major players on both sides to give a detailed, balanced, but opinionated account of the Boeing-Airbus competition. Long the world's preeminent manufacturer of commercial aircraft, Boeing saw its position steadily eroded by Airbus, a coalition of Western European aerospace companies which pioneered innovative manufacturing techniques and technology.

Eventually, Airbus took over the number-one spot, which Boeing — hamstrung by antiquated manufacturing techniques, complacent bureaucracy and an ill-fated merger with McDonnell Douglas — went into decline. But then Airbus bet the farm on the world's largest airliner, the A380 superjumbo, only to find that the market was turning away from "hub-and-spoke" routes in favor of city-to-city routes. As it happened, Boeing's innovative, upcoming 787 was just what many airlines were looking for. (Boeing has just announced another major delay in 787 production, so no one should declare victory for the American company just yet.)

Being Versus Airbus suffers somewhat for not being organized in chronological order; indeed, the book often feels like a series of articles adapted into a book. I also wish Newhouse spent more time talking about the history of both companies, explaining how they made it where they are today, and why other major players never made it.

Still, the book is an engrossing read for anyone interested in the industry. By my reckoning, that includes almost everyone.

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