Fabrice Bregier

Age: 51

Education: Advanced degrees from Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole des Mines

Career: Joined Matra Defense in 1993 and within 10 years served as CEO of Matra BAe Dynamics and MBDA. He joined Eurocopter in 2003 and became Airbus's chief operating officer in 2006. He took the helm of the company in 2012.

Fabrice Bregier's first year as CEO of Airbus was intense. The A380 has been suffering from slow sales and a disruption in production related to wing modifications. Also, the A350 had to be prepared for first flight. Recently, airlines showed renewed confidence and are expected to place more orders than anticipated this year. Aviation Week & Space Technology's Managing Editor-Commercial Jens Flottau talked with Bregier in his Toulouse office.

AW&ST: The A350 is about to start its flight-test campaign. The schedule slipped again slightly last year because of a problem in automating wing assembly. How does the situation stand?

Bregier: Last year we set the target to fly in mid-2013, and we are on track for that. Extra work preparing the maturity of systems and the design early on, along with having the right people, resulted in this achievement. It is probably the first time a job like this has been done at this scale.

There was speculation that the A350 might run into the same kind of production problems as the A380. It did not. Why?

Lessons learned included: having everybody work with the same tools and processes; rigorously applying our focus on one milestone at a time; working on the digital mockup and managing the extended enterprise and our risk-sharing partners in a more transparent and collaborative way. We were trying to streamline the customization of the cabin in this aircraft.

Following first flight, you need to get the A350 through certification and ramp up production. How well prepared are you?

Our engineers will tell you that the maturity is much higher than on the A380, thanks to the changes made. The technologies are probably even more challenging on a full-composite aircraft than on the A380. Is it all enough? Never. That's why we bring additional support to some risk-sharing partners who are still struggling. We've also launched longer-term actions to manage the ramp-up.

Have you struck a good balance between outsourcing and doing things yourself?

Yes. But getting the balance right doesn't cure everything. Internally, we also have challenges. With some risk-sharing partners it can take a little longer to fix issues. You must trust that partners will ask you for support if needed. We still have three composite plants internally and do control what we do.

Are you still looking into buying Spirit's Saint Nazaire plant, which has had trouble delivering A350 components on time?

No. We have launched a joint action plan with Spirit. We sent a number of Airbus people in support and we see improvement. Buying back sites is not our main objective.

In a way, you are still building the A350 like a metal aircraft. You selected fuselage panels and did not go for the full barrels like Boeing's on the 787. Any regrets?

We are very happy with the panels. The process of building them is probably the simplest in manufacturing this aircraft. I don't see the benefit in going for the full barrel.

There has been a lot of talk about whether or not you are going to build the A350-800. Will you?

Yes, we will. Airbus is well-known for building families of aircraft. The point is that the market is gradually moving to slightly bigger aircraft, and that is also true for narrowbodies. The priority, so far, is to have a good -900 and to focus on it. Then we will have time to optimize that and build a good -800. The first customers [for the -800] are set for 2016, so there is a market for smaller aircraft. I believe we have positioned the center of the family—the -900—well. The center of the market is around this size and the size of the -1000.

You have approximately four times as many orders for the -900 than for the -1000 and the -800. Will that ratio remain the same?

The -1000 will probably pick up nicely. British Airways has selected us, as has Cathay Pacific. And Qatar Airways has ordered 37. We did not really market the -1000 aggressively because we wanted it to be ready first, to freeze detailed configuration and to confirm that we can deliver what we have promised. We have passed these milestones now and we can offer it. This aircraft will have a higher market share because it does all the missions of a 777-300ER with 25 percent less fuel burn. It will find its way not only against the 787, but also the 777.

Would you see a further stretch of the A350 as conceivable in the future? Boeing's proposed 777-9X is larger than the A350-1000.

I would never say never, but we have not studied it and we have no plans short-term. So far, the three members of the family will cover most of the requirements of the market.

Are you surprised that the A319 is not selling strongly anymore?

If you take American Airlines, they decided to buy a lot of A319s. It is clear that when we look at NEO we have a marginal quantity of A319NEOs compared to A320NEOs and A321NEOs. This is part of a trend. Developing the A319NEO will involve a marginal cost and we want to offer our customers that option.

Several reasons may be driving the trend. The most important one is that people are simply buying larger aircraft. New competitors such as the Bombardier CSeries are surely not the reason. Look at the figures. We are close to having more sales for the A319NEO alone than Bombardier has for the CSeries.

The A319NEO is a low-risk solution for airlines operating the A320 family. The CSeries still has to demonstrate its performance. We have decided to double the production capacity of the A321 from nine to 18 per month in the coming years to deal with that trend. Some bottlenecks occurred—not in the final assembly line—but in the supply chain. When it was launched, we did not assume that we would reach a rate of 18. For a long time, it was at four or five per month, no more.

There was a debate within Airbus three years ago about pursuing an all-new narrowbody or the NEO. On which side were you, initially?

We never seriously considered a brand-new aircraft replacing the A320 family in 2015-17, for a simple reason. We believe the technologies are not mature enough to deliver the performance improvements that would impel the board of directors to inject €10 billion ($13.2 billion) in a new family of aircraft. We never considered a brand-new single aisle before 2020. But probably the success of the NEO now means that what we had in mind before it was launched—a new aircraft by around 2025—is shifting toward 2030. It will be very difficult with a new aircraft to be as globally competitive as an A320NEO.

A380 sales have been weak recently. Do you consider this a temporary issue until airlines have become less risk averse, or do you have deeper concerns?

We still have nearly 160 aircraft that we need to deliver. We are in a fairly comfortable situation. Your point is right, the market is soft for aircraft of this size. One reason is the level of investment and risk in an unstable environment. But this aircraft can offer a reliable solution for new customers, so the situation is a temporary one. We will be able to convince other airlines to procure A380s. We are at the very beginning of this process in China. With the growth in traffic there, they will need bigger aircraft. We expect about 200 aircraft in the Chinese market, but the big quantities will come after 2020. This aircraft will have a market potential that goes well beyond the first 260 orders on record.

Would you say the A380 came too soon for the market?

It is difficult to say. It came late compared with the commitments we made to our customers. Perhaps it was launched a bit early, but we have it. It works and it is a fantastic aircraft. Look at Emirates and how they get their market share, that is also due to the A380. The first customers have not optimized the aircraft from a cost point of view. We do not see high-density A380s. We have a lot of open space, which is nice, but it does not mean that there is any revenue attached to it. I think you can manage higher-density layouts without sacrificing customer comfort. And that helps to improve the performance of the aircraft. We are now clearly moving in this direction. We were probably a bit too exotic in its configuration in the beginning.

You mean the showers?

No, the showers are OK to attract first-class passengers or VVIPs who otherwise fly on private aircraft. That is a different type of market. But if I take economy- and even business-class, we can find ways to have 7-10 percent more passengers. If you applied the comfort standards of an A380 in a 777 or a 747-8, you would have hardly any room for passengers.

You plan to build 25 aircraft this year. How about the coming years?

By 2014 we should go back to 30. For 2015, to remain at 30 would require the sale of a few more aircraft. We will have to make that decision at the end of this year. We are not desperate. If we get a few orders this year we can fill the gap. The 747-8 has a much bigger issue. They sold a lot on the freighter market. Now they are trying to buy back 747-400s as part of the deals, just to keep the production flow at acceptable levels.

The sales target for this year remains unchanged?

Yes, 25 aircraft.

Do you think the 777X and the A350-1000 will kill the 747-8?

I don't think the 747-8 found its market as a passenger aircraft. It is a very old generation. The 777X is Boeing's reaction to the success of the A350-1000. The only difference is that it will enter service in 2017 and the 777X will come much later and with a hell of a lot of technical challenges—a new big engine, a new set of wings, other modifications. We are not on the risky side, Boeing is.

Following the obvious success of the A320NEO, does an A330NEO sound good?

No. We will continue to improve the A330, but we still need to keep the homogeneity of the aircraft. It is fantastic, reliable and cost-effective. We need to maintain that. I don't think the NEO strategy is relevant for the A330.