Airbus, the European company that has conquered half the world market

Passengers landing at Toulouse airport in the south-west of France will henceforth be able to get a glimpse of the world’s largest airliner, the Airbus A380. It is parked outside the Airbus hangar and is immediately recognisable by its double row of windows. With a bit of luck, they may even witness the take-off and landing of the aircraft during the test flights that are currently under way.

The A380 can transport 35 percent more passengers than the largest plane currently in service. This means a normal lifting capacity of 550 passengers, rising to a maximum of 800. It also consumes 12 percent less fuel. It will inaugurate its entry into scheduled air traffic at the end of 2007 and Singapore Airlines will be the first carrier to incorporate it in its fleet.

The giant plane is the latest innovation from Airbus. In 35 years, the European planemaker has created the most innovative and flexible family of aircraft on the market. In 2006, Airbus will deliver more planes than its sole rival and will once again break its record of aircraft delivered with 430 planes of all current models.

Airbus is a company that stands out from the rest. It is truly a European company founded in the 1960s to put Europe on the map in a world dominated by US aircraft manufacturers. The company’s beginnings go back to British planemaker BAE and a consortium set up by France, Germany and Spain. Airbus may even be called an embodiment of the European Union. The European thinking underlying Airbus is also reflected in its production structure. The various parts of the aircraft are constructed at industrial sites distributed among the partner countries. But a whole slew of subcontractors also participate in its manufacture, including Swedish carmaker Saab.

Toulouse is the location of one of the aircraft’s two assembly lines. Parts from numerous subcontractors arrive there on a specially designed cargo plane, the Beluga. It has the greatest transport capacity of any aircraft in the world, namely up to 1400 cubic metres. It can transport an entire helicopter, but its record payload is a tank measuring 6.5 by 17.6 metres and weighing 39 tonnes.

However, the wings of the new A380 are too large for the Beluga. Finding a solution to transporting them from the construction company in Wales to Toulouse represented a real challenge for transport expert Airbus. Benefiting from the high tides on the Welsh coast, the wings are loaded on board a ferry that takes them as far as the port of Pauillac after hugging the French Atlantic coast. Even the river transport across French territory called for a good number of new approaches.

Toulouse is also the headquarters of Airbus. The offices are distributed across several buildings close to the airport. Today, an elegant new building adjacent to the motorway accommodates most of the customer service departments. In this building and its annexes, in a zone known as Campus 2, close to 2000 employees carry out most of the after-sales services.Their mission is to support all the customer airlines of Airbus so that they can operate their planes on a daily basis in an optimal way. This service also includes technical assistance and follow-up of the aircraft on a 24-hour a day seven days a week basis, training of the crews (pilots, cabin crew, maintenance staff) and developing solutions for enhancing the aircraft technology.

Guy Salès, operations manager at Campus 2, opened the doors of Customer Services in the new building to us. He described the building and its underlying concept to us: “Parallel to moving into this new building, Airbus took the opportunity to modernise and upgrade its furnishings and equipment. It was not simply a matter of matching the lighting of the building to the sublime architecture designed to optimise communications, but also to use the office spaces in an optimal way and to satisfy the latest environmental objectives”. “The office equipment had to offer maximum flexibility and the furniture had to be manufactured from recyclable materials. It had to be possible to combine a minimum number of modules in a maximum number of ways.The office furniture had to be more compact than previously so that the office space could be utilized in an optimal way. So everyone was provided with less cumbersome flat monitors. This also implied a new approach to the use of paper. To reduce the quantity of paper used, that requires storage space, thousands of documents were scanned, converting a large number of archives into computerized data. At first, many keen “paper hoarders” among our employees were horrified, but we no longer hear any complaints today”.

So Airbus had a very clear idea of what kind of office equipment it wanted. Six companies showed their interest when the plans were announced on the Internet. After several rounds, only two candidates were left: Kinnarps from Sweden and an American company. The choice finally fell on Kinnarps. Why?

“Kinnarps could offer a high-quality office environment”, declared Monsieur Salès. “The materials from which the Kinnarps furniture was made were recyclable and offered great flexibility, exactly what we were looking for. In addition, the furniture did not take up much space.”

Monsieur Salès showed us the offices equipped with this new furniture with its ultra-modern look. The illuminated spaces are set off by a radiant laminated birch. The cabinets and office elements are designed in the same material. The chairs are upholstered in black fabric. Stylish armchairs in yellow and orange are arranged regally in the central area and in the visitors’ room.

Finally, Monsieur Salès showed us the technical support and operations monitoring room. Its design was in large measure the work of the Kinnarps design office. This is where Airbus Customer Services continuously monitors and provides the technical support for its customers’ fleets.The room, designated AIRTAC, is open 24 hours a day 365 days a year. The visitor access area is illuminated in yellow and violet. Behind a glazed partition are two zones, each accommodating a dozen workplaces arranged on several levels reminiscent of mission control at rocket launching stations. The seats are designed for use 24 hours a day. A wall covered with monitors faces the technicians working there, displaying the status of the Airbus fleet throughout the world in real time. Most of this information is transmitted automatically by the aircraft in flight thanks to their on-board computers, allowing technical follow-up in real time. The AIRTAC staff can thus perform corrective actions in advance.

Airbus Customer Services thus demonstrates its effectiveness in helping the airlines operate their aircraft in an optimal way - on a daily basis.

ANN-MARIE ÅSHEDEN