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Wednesday, November 15, 2006 - Page updated at 01:14 AM

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Launch of A350 imminent, Airbus sales chief says

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Airbus supersalesman John Leahy says he'll have a trump card when selling the new A350 jet against Boeing's 787: a composite plastic fuselage that's more easily repaired.

In a phone interview Tuesday from Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, Leahy said he expects the much-delayed plane will be launched this month.

He confirmed the so-called A350-XWB, which will compete against Boeing's 787 and 777 jets, will likely have a carbon fiber-reinforced plastic fuselage similar to the 787's.

But there will be a crucial difference, said Leahy.

To make repairs easier, Airbus will construct the fuselage with plastic panels rather than the huge, single-piece tubular sections Boeing is using.

"Most of the world's airlines, at least the ones I've been talking to, have big concerns about that," Leahy said, referring to Boeing's approach.

"That's where composites gets people worried a bit, on the repairability. ... Anything you see with Airbus will have composites perhaps in sections that can be removed and repaired rather easily."

And, revealing what must be one more concern for the troubled European jet builder, Leahy, 56, said he had heart surgery two weeks ago.

Doctors put a couple of stents in a blocked coronary artery and have advised the New York-born Leahy to slow his frenetic work pace.

"Boeing's market share may have had something to do with it," Leahy joked.

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His workload clearly was a factor. "I've been told if I don't want to have more blockages in my heart, I ought to slow down a little bit," Leahy said.

Yet he showed his usual vigor in batting away any suggestion his company faces decline.

"The survivability of Airbus is not in doubt," Leahy said, "It's generating billions of dollars in cash and revenue and profits. ... It's not as bad as it looks."

Leahy is Airbus' key link to customers.

He not only sells airplanes, he also tells the design and production side what the airlines want.

He deserves much of the credit for the ascent of Airbus, which in 2003 dislodged Boeing as the world's top commercial-airplane manufacturer.

But this year, the delay in delivering the A380 superjumbo jet stretched to two years, causing a huge financial hit; and the A350 proved no match for the 787 and had to be radically revamped.

Through October, Boeing won 788 orders to Airbus' 508, and two consecutive chief executives left the company.

Leahy has been jetting around the world to keep key customers on board the A380 program — unhappy airlines like Qantas in Australia.

"I did spend three nights on airplanes flying out to Australia. Unfortunately for me, that was just before I had the heart surgery," Leahy said.

"I'm still trying to get out to meet the customers. But I guess as you get older, you slow down a bit."

Airbus can ill afford to have him on the sidelines. Leahy was hospitalized with a burst appendix in April 2005, just before Boeing began a devastating run of 787 sales.

The launch of the A350 is crucial to stemming that sales flow to Boeing.

To increase performance and reduce weight, Airbus is likely to make the A350 fuselage panels from carbon-fiber-reinforced composite plastic rather that previously planned aluminum/lithium alloy, Leahy said.

That would mean the entire airframe skin is made from composites as on the 787.

But Leahy said Airbus has rejected Boeing's construction method, which creates a large single-piece fuselage section by wrapping carbon fiber tape around a drum-like mold and hardening it in a high-pressure oven.

"Our engineering staff are pretty convinced that is not at all the way to go," Leahy said.

To allay customer worries on repairing a fuselage dented in service, Airbus will construct the fuselage in much smaller pieces, so that a damaged panel "can be removed and repaired rather easily," Leahy said.

Responding in a statement, Boeing said it has tested how to repair both large and small areas, "and we're confident we have the right material and manufacturing method."

Despite a large order Tuesday for 52 single-aisle A320s from British low-cost carrier easyJet, Leahy doesn't expect to bridge the order gap with Boeing by the end of the year.

But he is consoled by the gangbuster pace of airplane deliveries, which should be well over 400 jets this year.

"In 22 years at Airbus, I don't think we've had this big a backlog with this level of production," Leahy said.

"You can say it's been the best of years, it's been the worst of years."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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