How Airbus became Boeing's greatest rival (BA)


Airbus A380

  • Over the past 20 years, the commercial aviation industry has come to be dominated by Airbus and Boeing.
  • Airbus and Boeing each own roughly half of the global large commercial airliner market.
  • The two carriers compete on the same level, but Airbus is relatively new when compared to Boeing, which  has been around since 1916, the Airbus consortium did not come together until 1969.
  • Airbus currently boasts a production backlog of around 7,200 planes while Boeing’s backlog is around 5,500 aircraft.
  • Visit Business Insider’s hompage for more stories.

Airbus versus Boeing is one of the great rivalries in business today. Like Coca-Cola versus Pepsi, Ford versus GM, McDonald’s versus Burger King.

These days, if you fly, it’ll probably be either an Airbus or a Boeing (unless you’re on a much smaller regional jet from companies like Embraer or Bombardier).

You might assume that it was always this way, but that’s actually not the case.

Just a few short decades ago, the world of commercial aviation was filled with big names like McDonnell Douglas, BAe, Saab, Lockheed, Fokker, and even Convair, alongside the legacy Boeing.

Now, it’s pretty much just the two rivals, locked in battle.

Despite Airbus’ prominence, Boeing is a much older and more established company. Founded in 1916, the Boeing Company is now an aerospace and defense juggernaut that is America’s largest industrial exporter. 

The company we know today as Airbus can trace its history back to an agreement signed in July 1967 by the French, German, and British governments to strengthen their cooperation in the field of aviation technology.

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Included in the agreement is a clause that called for the governments to “to take appropriate measures for the joint development and production of an airbus.”

It was a decision made out of necessity, Richard Aboulafia, an aviation industry analyst for the consulting company Teal Group, told Business Insider. 

At the time, American firms like Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed were growing in strength and influence around the world. European manufacturers, once commercial aviation’s leaders in innovation, were feeling the pinch. 

Together they formed a consortium called Airbus to counter the might of America’s aviation giants. 

The consortium would be based at the headquarters of Sud Aviation in Toulouse, France where it remains today. 

Here’s a closer look at how Airbus became Boeing’s greatest rival.

This story was originally published by Benjamin Zhang in April 2018. It was updated by David Slotnick on September 21, 2019.

SEE ALSO: Photos show the history of the Boeing 737, from the early days to the grounding of the 737 Max

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By the 1960s, European plane makers had proven had built some highly successful jetliners. The Brits had planes like the Hawker Siddeley Trident and…

… The de Havilland Comet.

The French, meanwhile, produced the Sud Aviation Caravelle.

Together, the two nations’ plane makers teamed up to build the Concorde. To this date, the Concorde remains the world’s first and only commercially viable supersonic airliner (although the “commercially viable” part is subject to debate, and ultimately ceased to be the case). But on their own, the individual European manufacturers could not take on the might of the Americans.

After all, the Douglas DC-8 …

… and the Boeing 707 had become new prominent workhorse jets for airlines around the world.

Plus, a new generation of wide-body American airliners was on their way. This group was headlined, of course, by Boeing’s iconic four-engine 747 jumbo jet — of which several variants still fly today.

There was also the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and…

…The Lockheed L-1011 TriStar — which ultimately sold just 250 units.

The Europeans, eager to compete with the American exporters, needed a wide-body jet of their own. On May 29, 1969, the French and German governments agreed to lead a consortium that would produce and sell the A300B airliner.

The development of Airbus as a company and the A300 as an airplane was fraught with challenges. 

First, there was the issue of engines.

Rolls-Royce’s new RB211 triple-spool turbofan engine was expected to be able to deliver the performance capable of powering the new 300 seat jet. So Airbus planned to use a version of the Rolls-Royce engine called the RB207. But, that deal fell through, leaving the A300 with nothing to power it. 

Instead, Airbus decided to buy off-the-shelf engines from GE and Pratt & Whitney after it scaled the A300 down from 300 seats to 250 seats. This occurred after Airbus realized that its plane may be too big for the European market due to lower airline demand forecasts. 

Then there was another setback.

In late 1968, the structure of the consortium took a major shift when the British government decided to pull its support in the wake of the massive cost overruns associated with the Concorde program. But, British manufacturer Hawker Siddeley remained in the consortium to build the A300’s wings. 

On December 18, 1970, Airbus Industrie was officially created.

To differentiate itself from the competition, Airbus made it a strategic point to offer a high level of technology in all of its aircraft. This included innovative construction techniques, like the use of lightweight composite materials.

From the very beginning, the consortium agreed to build the A300 using parts from its various European members. To transport the various components to the assembly plant, Airbus used trucks, barges, and a fleet of over-sized transport planes called Super Guppys.

They decided that France would build the cockpit, control systems, and the lower center section of the fuselage, while the Germans would be responsible for the forward, rear, and upper center sections of the fuselage. Britain’s Hawker Siddeley built the wings. 

The Dutch would make the control surfaces while Spain’s CASA, a late addition to the consortium in 1971, constructed the A300’s horizontal tailplane. 

On September 3, 1970, Airbus made its first sale; an order from Air France for six A300Bs. However, Air France felt the 250-seater was too small. So, Airbus re-stretched the A300B1 to 270 seats to create the A300B2.

On October 28, 1972, the Airbus A300B made its maiden flight.

Although it was a widebody plane, the A300 wasn’t designed to be a rival for Boeing’s jumbo jet. Instead, as a medium-range, medium-sized widebody, it was a competitor for the DC-10 and the L-1011. 

Airbus then took the A300B on an international sales tour. But, even though it scored orders from global airlines outside of Europe, like South African Airways, Thai Airways, and Korean Air, Airbus was effectively frozen out of the US market.

That all changed in 1978 when Airbus handed over four A300s to Eastern Airlines for a “free” six-month trial. All Eastern Airlines had to do was pay for its custom interior.

Under the agreement struck between Airbus and Eastern Airlines CEO Frank Borman, the Miami-based carrier had six months to use the planes. If the A300s didn’t live up to Borman’s expectations, Eastern could simply return the planes to Airbus no questions asked, and no further expense.


The test-drive certainly went as Airbus hoped it would. At the end of the six months, Borman ordered 23 more Airbus A300s. Airbus had arrived in America!

In July 1978, Airbus launched its second model, the A310. It was derivative of the A300 that was shorter but with much greater range.

During the 1970s, Boeing concentrated on growing its highly lucrative jumbo jet business while generally staying away from the smaller widebody market. Boeing didn’t build a jet to serve the same market as the A300’s until it launched the 767-200 in 1978. By the time the 767 entered service in 1981, the L-1011 was effectively done while the DC-10 was in a weakened position due to scandal, meaning that without the 767, Airbus could effectively own that space.

However, Airbus didn’t truly become a global power until the arrival of the single-aisle A320, a competitor to Boeing’s already storied 737. It was the company’s first all-new design since the A300.

In June 1981, Air France announced its intent to buy 25 of the yet-to-be-launched jet. Since then, the A320 family has been the best selling jet in the world aside from Boeing’s 737, with more than 14,000 planes ordered.

The A320 marked the arrival of the digital cockpit and fly-by-wire technology in airliners. According to Aboulafia, the A320 and its many technological innovations make it Airbus’s greatest contribution to commercial aviation.

In 1985, Airbus poached John Leahy away from Piper, a small manufacturer, to be its head of sales in North America. The hire was a stroke of genius. By 1994, the New Yorker had become the company’s global head of sales.

Leahy is known for his bold and daring sales campaigns. In his time at Airbus, he’s often targeted — and successfully won — some of even Boeing’s most loyal customers. By the time Leahy in January 2018, he had helped Airbus sell more than $1 trillion worth of jets.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Leahy recounted how he got Northwest Airlines, a loyal Boeing customer, to buy from Airbus in 1986. 

Leahy went with a strategy called “buy small, think big” in which he told Northwest it could order just 10 A320s but receive the bulk discount of a 100 plane order. However, Leahy also told Northwest it would reserve delivery dates for 100 planes in case it wanted more. 

And if Northwest didn’t like the A320s, it’s simply stuck with 10 planes while Airbus absorbs the risk for the rest. 

The strategy worked, and Northwest — which was acquired by Delta in 2008 — really liked the Airbus. 

“They didn’t just take 100, I think they got up to 145,” Leahy told the Times. 

In the early 1990s, Airbus launched two new widebody airliners with mixed results. The four-engine A340 first flew in 1991 while…

… The twin-engine A330 took to the air in 1992. The A340 launched at the end of the four-engine era, when airliners began to favor two-engine planes thanks to increased range and fuel efficiencies. It proved to be a commercial failure, with just 377 sold. On the other hand, the A330 remains Airbus’ best selling widebody jet with more than 1,700 ordered so far.

The A330 and the A340 are comparable in size. However, the A330 was designed for medium to long-haul flights while the A340 was designed for long and ultra-long-haul flying. But with increasingly capable modern turbofan engines, the less-expensive to operate A330 could effectively operate most of the A340’s routes, rendering the latter obsolete. 

In November 1996, Boeing dealt Airbus the first in a succession of setbacks. The plane maker signed an agreement with American Airlines that made Boeing its exclusive airplane supplier for 20 years, in exchange for favorable pricing. By June 1997, Boeing had managed to nail down similar 20 years agreements with both Delta and Continental.

Then, in 1997, Boeing acquired rival McDonnell Douglas for $13 billion.

To consolidate its offerings, Boeing immediately killed off the widebody MD-11…

…And halted production of the MD80/90, a rival for the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. With Lockheed long out of the airliner game, this effectively reduced the market down to Boeing and Airbus.

As part of the merger, Boeing promised the European Union Commission that it would drop the exclusivity clause from the contracts it signed with American, Delta, and Continental.

However, it is believed the airlines and Boeing tacitly enforced the clause after the merger. American would not buy from Airbus again until 2011, when it placed an order for 130 A320s and 130 A320neos, the next generation of the single-aisle airline — and the jet which Boeing designed the 737 Max to compete against. Delta didn’t place another order with Airbus until 2013.

In the early 1990s, Airbus decided it was time to go after the big fish, with a jumbojet of its own to compete against Boeing’s 747.

That plane became the Airbus A380, which launched in 2007. The double-decker A380 is the world’s largest commercial airliner. Airbus expected the plane to be a game changer with grand visions flying casinos and luxury lounges.

However, superjumbo found orders hard to come by. Since the early 2000s, Airbus has managed to sell just 290 A380s with more than 40% of those to Emirates.

According to Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia, the A380 is the biggest mistake in the history of Airbus. Aboulafia believes the A380 is a poorly executed aircraft designed for a market that doesn’t really exist. As a result, the $25 billion Airbus spent on the A380 program could have been better used elsewhere like on a rival for Boeing’s next-generation 777X or a true replacement for the aging 757. 

In 2017, Airbus and Boeing went toe-to-toe again when the US manufacturer launched a trade complaint against Canada’s Bombardier over sales of its innovative C Series airliner.

The US Department of Commerce threatened to levy a 299.45% tariff on the C Series jets after Boeing alleged Bombardier used Canadian government subsidies to lower its prices for Delta. Airbus jumped into the fray by taking a 50.1% stake in the C Series program and announced it would produce US-bound C Series planes at its plant in Mobile, Alabama thereby making it a domestically produced aircraft. The US International Trade Commision eventually found that Bombardier had done no harm to Boeing’s business and scrapped the proposed tariff. 


In July, Airbus took full control of the C Series program from Bombardier and rebranded the innovative carbon composite jet the A220.

As Airbus looks towards the future, its narrowbody lineup will headlined by the updated A320neo family with new engines, electronics, and wings.

Plus its A321LR and A321XLR long-range versions.

As well as the A220.

While is widebody fleet will be led by the carbon composite A350XWB family of jets along with…

… The A330neo.

Boeing, meanwhile, is struggling to get its troubled 737 Max back off the ground…

…And to finish its NMA, or “New Midsize Airplane.” The A321XLR fills the niche in the market that Boeing is known to be targeting — a replacement for the 757 and 767 — with its yet-to-be-announced NMA, meaning the plane maker will need to finish its plans and get building.

American Airlines, meanwhile, ordered 50 of the XLRs in June to replace its aging 757s, but there are many more planes to be replaced in US fleets, and around the world.

That means that the Airbus versus Boeing rivalry is alive and well.