Airbus faces challenges as it enters new era

Airbus will draw a line under two decades of M&A dealmaking and frenetic orders on Wednesday as it reports its first results since the European aerospace and defense group unified under its dominant planemaking arm last month.

The sense of Airbus entering a new era is palpable, with the complex reorganization set in motion by the swallowing of parent Airbus Group (formerly EADS), by the subsidiary it was created to oversee, coinciding with waning demand from airlines.

The company is expected to report a 7 percent drop in full-year core earnings and confirm that orders for new planes this year will drop below the number of jets it delivers for only the second time in 14 years.

Mounting legal problems, uncertainty over two major programs and a changing of the guard among senior management also blur the outlook for Europe’s largest aerospace company.

EADS was created in 2000 from multiple mergers to form a civil and defense giant, incorporating the older Airbus, and later became Airbus Group. After failing to buy BAE Systems in 2012, defense ambitions dimmed and the era of shareholder-led consolidation is now drawing to a close, with Airbus Group absorbed by its Airbus planemaking subsidiary. The technical completion of the internal merger is due to take place later this year.

In a careful reshuffle, Tom Enders keeps overall leadership but can only achieve this by resuming his former post as head of the planemaker “Airbus SAS” — until now merely a division.

That means Fabrice Bregier has had to abandon the civil business’ separate CEO privileges to became chief operating officer of the wider group as a powerful No.2 — a delicate move in a company with a long history of see-sawing job moves.

How that balance works in the coming months is seen as key to avoiding a resumption of political in-fighting that could prove a worrying distraction as the company prepares for a number of high-profile departures over the next 1-2 years.

Group strategy chief Marwan Lahoud, 50, announced plans to step down this month and commercial sales chief John Leahy, 66, has already scheduled his retirement in 2018. Two top executives credited with improving industrial performance — Tom Williams and Didier Evrard — are also nearing retirement, though Airbus says that any changes will be gradual.

Taken collectively, however, the looming changes suggest that the relentless drive for market share under Leahy, and M&A under Lahoud, have peaked.

“It is a move away from the traditional managers, cheerleaders and engineers toward the bottom line-focused crowd,” said Teal Group consultant Richard Aboulafia.

The internal overhaul also brings a shift in power from heavyweight engineers to a new breed of managers. Convinced that digital technology will alter the way aircraft are made, Enders recently hired 36-year-old ex-Google executive Paul Eremenko as chief technology officer.

The appointment has raised questions among some Airbus watchers over how long engineering chief Charles Champion will stay at the company. Champion could not be reached for comment.

Company tensions have also been inflamed by a UK investigation into the use of middlemen to sell jets, people close to the matter say.

Also consuming attention are concerns about the delayed A400M military aircraft and questions over the future of the A380 superjumbo.

On the positive side, analysts say that Airbus can look forward to a boost from a strong dollar as hedges unwind. And it remains well ahead in orders for the latest medium-haul jets, a lifeline for future developments.

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