Airbus Replaces Head Of A380 Program

September 4, 2006

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Airbus replaced the head of its troubled A380 superjumbo program on Monday, two months after a crisis over production delays led to the resignation of the company's chief executive and the co-head of parent EADS.

Airbus said Champion had been replaced by Mario Heinen, a 50-year-old executive from Luxembourg, who until now has been in charge of the European planemaker's chief cash engine, its single-aisle range of A320-family jets.

The move is CEO Christian Streiff's first key appointment since he was drafted in from outside the aviation industry to replace Gustav Humbert as the head of Airbus in July.

Champion will serve Streiff as an adviser, Airbus said.

The double-decker A380 is seen as a make-or-break project for Airbus which vies with its only rival Boeing for leadership of the global market for large commercial jets.

Heinen's first task will be to ensure that there is no further slippage in deliveries, with Airbus already facing penalty payments to airlines over previous delays.

The A380, the world's largest airliner, is due to be delivered to its first customer Singapore Airlines by the end of 2006 after two sets of delays totalling a year.

Hundreds of Airbus employees filed up stairs to board the lower deck of the A380 for the first of four test sorties known as "Early Long Flights" lasting seven to 15 hours on Monday.

Airbus staff in France, Germany, Spain and Britain, competed through lots for a place on the first passenger test flight, which took off from Toulouse in southwest France at 8:58 a.m. British time.

The plane, powered by four huge Rolls Royce engines, returned to its Toulouse base at 2:59 p.m. GMT after a fully crewed flight in which the Airbus staff were served drinks and meals.

Capable of carrying 555 people in standard three-class layout, or over 800 in all-economy, the A380 is billed as the industry's answer to airport congestion and rising air traffic.

But wiring installation problems cost EADS EUR2 billion euros (USD$2.57 billion) in anticipated lost profits and sliced a quarter off its share price in June, plunging the pan-European firm into its worst crisis since it was founded in 2000.

Boeing has a competing strategy based on mid-sized long-haul jets capable of carrying passengers to their final destination, rather than large regional hubs to be served by the A380.

Airbus is working on a rival plane, the A350, to catch up with buoyant sales of the mid-sized Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Alain Flourens, 49, will replace Heinen as head of the Airbus single-aisle program, the plane manufacturer said.