Being John Leahy

Eleven or so years ago John Leahy took a 13-hour flight from London to Singapore, arrived on schedule and was briefed over breakfast by the local Airbus team. Before lunch he had met the media and proceeded after that to his main mission – a critical meeting with the Singapore Airlines (SIA) chief executive. By midnight Leahy was on a plane back to Europe, mission accomplished.

He successfully reassured SIA over delays in the delivery of the A380 (the airline was the aircraft’s launch customer) and even convinced it to add another nine to the 10 superjumbos already on order. According to people who were privy to the negotiations, Leahy made an offer SIA couldn’t refuse.

Leahy is Airbus’ Chief Operating Officer – Customers, and the European consortium credits him for raising the company’s market share from 18% in 1995, to over 50% by the new millennium. It is no small feat, not least for an average-sized American in a fiercely Gallic and Teutonic environment.

The 67-year-old Leahy has said he wants to retire by end-2017, ending 32 years of association with Toulouse-based Airbus. Those who know him, even if just peripherally, will appreciate his guile and wit, likely a result of his liberal arts background at university.

He has a wicked sense of humour and revels in taunting his countrymen, “our friends in Seattle” he likes to say, preferring not to name his rivals at Boeing.

It’s unclear who will replace Leahy as chief salesman. His own choice, Kiran Rao, has ruled himself out of the running, sensing (perhaps rightly) that it’s too hot a seat, especially in a year where Boeing has comprehensively and conclusively beaten Airbus, notably at the Paris Airshow in the summer and most recently in Dubai.

Leahy Hamburg 0516

Leahy is a very hard, almost impossible, act to follow. He can be explicitly colourful with his language in informal settings, as some of us found out when we were invited to his swanky hotel suite overlooking the Chao Phraya many years ago, after a long day debating the merits of purchasing either an Airbus or a Boeing widebody.

There are reports that Christian Scherer and Eric Schulz, from ATR and Rolls-Royce, respectively, are the leading candidates to replace Leahy. They appear unlikely, in our view, because each seems to lack Leahy’s charisma and the three I-s: imagination, ingenuity and inventiveness.

Asia is the world’s largest aviation market and unless Leahy’s successor is able to cajole, court and woo many of the egotistical owners and chief executives of airlines in this region the way the New Yorker has, then Airbus will struggle to sell its planes.

Whoever Airbus appoints as its new sales head will have to not only feel at home in the 3-Michelin star Fat Duck where Leahy once sealed a mega deal with Emirates over dinner, but similarly at ease with some of the exotic culinary tastes found in Southeast and East Asia.

In the meantime the European manufacturer will hang on to Leahy until end-2017. There are suggestions, however, he might bid adieu after the Singapore Airshow in mid-February 2018 where, it is thought, Leahy will go out in a blaze of glory with a multibillion dollar order from an Asian customer.

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