Airbus Braces for Life After Leahy

  • American reveals that he will leave ‘sooner rather than later’
  • Head of strategy Rao confirmed as next in line for key role

John Leahy in Toulouse, France, on Sept. 25, 2014.

Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

Airbus SE faces the end of an era as sales supremo John Leahy prepares to leave after racking up more than $1 trillion of aircraft deals during his career at the European planemaker.

Leahy, 66, said at a briefing in Mexico that he’ll go “sooner rather than later” and confirmed that the reins of the sales operation will be handed to Kiran Rao, executive vice president of strategy and marketing at Airbus’s commercial-plane unit.

New Yorker Leahy, who joked that both his wife and doctor would like him to retire, pointing to his waistline, plans to stand down before the end of this year, though he gave no specific departure date.

John Leahy

Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

Leahy has outlasted more than half a dozen counterparts at arch-rival Boeing Co. since being appointed as Airbus’s chief commercial officer in 1994. He is preparing to stand down during a global lull in aircraft sales, with the manufacturers each focused on production ramp-ups as they work through record order backlogs, and no major new programs close to the crucial marketing stage.

The famously hard-charging executive worked in marketing at Piper Aircraft for seven years before joining Airbus North America in 1985. He later assuming responsibility for cracking the key U.S. market, where Chicago-based Boeing once reigned supreme but most major airlines now have Airbus jets.

When Leahy moved to Toulouse as commercial chief more than two decades ago the company had only an 18 percent share of the jetliner market, with Boeing controlling the rest. The fact that the two are now balanced roughly 50-50 is possibly the biggest testament to the success of his sales technique.

Air Show Deals

While that no-holds-barred approach sometimes led to tensions, it also allowed the executive to broker major deals at a succession of air shows, the aviation industry’s highest-profile events, where Airbus became a specialist at landing last-minute contracts guaranteed to make headlines.

Leahy also proved a master at whipping up enthusiasm for new models, creating a sense of urgency that made airlines fearful of waiting too long to join the order bandwagon.

That was illustrated with the re-engined A320neo, with which Airbus wrong-footed Boeing and garnered more than 5,000 orders at a record pace. The larger versions of the four-engined A340 model proved a tougher sell as airlines began to switch to twin-turbine jets even for very long flights, while not even Leahy’s brio has been able to drum up anything more than modest demand for the A380 superjumbo.

Kiran Rao

Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

Leahy’s successor Rao, 53, was named internally as his deputy last year, people with knowledge of the promotion said in November. Born in Bangalore, India, Rao studied aeronautical engineering in London and has also held the title of executive vice president for sales and marketing.

Leahy studied communications and philosophy at New York’s Fordham University, holds an MBA from Syracuse University and was named an officer of France’s Légion d’Honneur in 2012 for his services to European aviation. He commented on his planned exit from Airbus during a briefing on the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association’s annual meeting in Cancun.

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