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The Last Hurrah of Airbus’s Trillion-Dollar Man

With retirement looming, John Leahy has one final Paris Air Show in his sights.

John Leahy, chief operating officer of Airbus Group NV.

Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

In two decades as the sales boss at Airbus SE, John Leahy has racked up a staggering $1 trillion-plus in orders ranging from diminutive A318s that list for about $75 million up to the double-decker A380, with a price tag topping $400 million. As Leahy prepares for what will probably be his last global air show—Paris, a venue where Airbus has typically announced deals worth many billion dollars—his last hurrah may disappoint.

As representatives of manufacturers, suppliers and airlines prepare to meet at Le Bourget, a historic airfield on the northern edge of the French capital, carriers aren’t really in buying mode. After a slew of successful product introductions over the past few years, Airbus has little new to show, and its order book is already filled with commitments for planes stretching out almost a decade. Rival Boeing Co., meanwhile, has a fresh model, an upgraded version of its 737, that’s likely to attract a flurry of buyers.

Leahy, though, is a master of air-show theatrics, so no one expects him to fly away from Paris empty-handed. “Don’t worry about John Leahy,” says Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders. Though Enders declined to comment on business prospects for the show, he said his colleague will “live forever” in the annals of Airbus, having been responsible for the bulk of the 17,000-plus jet sales achieved by the near 50-year-old company.

The 66-year-old New Yorker, who has been with various units of Airbus since 1985, has outlasted more than a half-dozen counterparts at Boeing since he was appointed chief salesman in 1994. During that time he has lifted Airbus’ share of the jetliner market from 18 percent to a roughly 50:50 balance with Boeing, and in 2012 he was named an officer of France’s Légion d’Honneur for his services to the industry.

Leahy says he plans to retire this year—“sooner rather than later”—and move from Airbus’s Toulouse headquarters back to the U.S., handing the sales operation over to his deputy Kiran Rao, 53. He hasn’t given a departure date, and could remain until the Dubai Air Show in November, where the big Gulf carriers typically place their orders.

Leahy is a constant globe-trotter, racking up hundreds of thousands of miles a year in the air, and usually eschews private planes for commercial service (first class) to see how customers are using the aircraft he sells. When he can, the executive flies into a city in the morning, spends the day negotiating, then boards a plane for an overnight flight to his next pitch.

With his penchant for contrast-collar shirts favored by Wall-Street bankers, shock of white hair and honeyed timbre to carry his detail-obsessed presentations, Leahy is somewhat of an outlier at a planemaker whose executive ranks preserve a careful balance between European managers to reflect regional stakeholders.

Over the years, Leahy has become legendary for a thick skin and no-holds-barred negotiating style that one colleague recalls saw him dash out of church to take a customer call. While that full-on approach can sometimes lead to tensions with airlines, he often lands spectacular last-minute contracts, such as a 200-plane, $18 billion deal secured from AirAsia Bhd. at the 2011 Paris show after talks that went on into the early hours.

An Airbus A350-1000 twinjet passenger plane.
Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

In the French capital this year, Leahy is likely to secure further orders for the A350 wide-body aircraft, featuring a composite fuselage that reduces fuel burn, and the A330neo, a decades-old model that’s been given a life-extending new engine. Deals may focus on customers in Asia and other emerging markets, where growth in air-travel is stronger.

In smaller single-aisle planes, Airbus’s A320neo family could be considered by European discount operators, but risks being overshadowed by Boeing’s 737. Though the manufacturer hasn’t announced details, it’s said to be planning a bigger version of the competing 737 Max series equipped with 230 seats in a single-class layout.

The U.S. company may announce as many as six separate deals for the Max 10, with United Airlines, Indonesia’s Lion Mentari Airlines PT and SpiceJet Ltd. of India all said to be looking as placing contracts, according to people familiar with negotiations. Boeing will also provide an update on its plans for an all-new “middle-of-market” aircraft that would replace the defunct Boeing 757 single-aisle jet and the soon-to-go 767 wide-body.

Yet even those developments are in part testimony to Leahy’s success.

The salesman used his influence in pushing Airbus to upgrade the A320, allowing it to bring the model to market almost 18 months before the revamped 737, turning the aircraft into the fastest-selling new model in commercial aviation history. And crucially he was able to make a case for a longer-range version of the largest A321neo which Airbus says is winning up to 80 percent of attainable orders—leaving Boeing without a competing product in a market that the two new planned models are only now beginning to address.

At past air shows, Leahy would typically use a closing show press conference to bask in the order haul of previous days, often reeling in major deals at the 11th hour just to upset the horse-race that Boeing looked set to win. In 2013, he quipped that he’d probably go fishing after securing so many deals in a few days that Airbus had come within reach of its annual order target.

This time round, he’ll be looking ahead to a more permanent break.

—With assistance from Francois de Beaupuy, Benjamin Katz and Julie Johnsson.

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