CUTTING ROOM - How Airbus leapfrogged Boeing; gifts I can turn down; the forgotten explosion that rocked Toulouse; beware baggage-snatchers ... Evan Davis at large.

by Evan Davis, economics editor of the BBC
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How Airbus leapfrogged Boeing; gifts I can turn down; the forgotten explosion that rocked Toulouse; beware baggage-snatchers ... Evan Davis at large.

So this is the year that Airbus is set to overtake Boeing. In recent years, the Toulouse-based planemaker had claimed to have surpassed its American rival in new orders. Boeing counter-claimed - with some merit - that what really matters in the fickle aviation business is planes delivered, not planes on the books. But yesterday's orders are today's deliveries, and Airbus is set to beat Boeing on any measure.

The Airbus success emerges from that classic dynamism of being number two in an industry. The company just tries harder than Boeing. So instead of flogging a revamped 747 designed in the '60s, Airbus has produced a new super-jumbo from scratch. The 555-seater A380 promises to clean up if the world's airports can build big enough gangways to load the passengers.

Unlike Boeing, Airbus didn't make the mistake of promising to build a fast plane - a sub-sonic cruiser - only to have to cancel it later. It knew that making planes go fast is a lot more expensive than making them very large and comfortable.

Having spent a day at the Airbus operation, I uncovered what trying harder really means: aiming to please the customer. For example, Airbus employs a local Michelin two-star rated chef as consultant to its dining room.

Potential customers are given what must be a better meal than anyone at Boeing HQ can offer. And I notice, too, that in the aircraft mock-up centre, where customers can look at the plane interiors, the gents has at least one Arab-style toilet in it. With Emirates airline being one of the biggest purchasers in the world, every detail matters. Cultural respect can really pay off.

I can now confess that at the end of our tour of Airbus, filming for a forthcoming TV programme on the euro, we were given goodie bags that contained a small torch, an Airbus pen and pad, and some Airbus plane-shaped fridge magnets.

Did that goodie bag corrupt me? Does this kind of corporate gift explain why I wrote nice things about the company? I doubt it. I'm probably more open to corruption by the affability of the staff and the willingness of the company to let us film where we wanted.

But handling company gifts is a constant problem. When a proud executive tries to buy you lunch or hand you a company torch, it seems rude to say: 'No, we don't accept bribes.' When he tries to give you a DVD player, you know you have to decline. I have accepted a box of jam (from a jam factory) and a dull CD from a CD maker, but I have turned down an upgrade from an airline and a new pair of loudspeakers. I can't think of a good rule that distinguishes right from wrong - gut instinct is the only guide.

At least I don't have to work in China, where the gifts can be huge, and the social pressure to accept enormous.

While on the subject of Toulouse, a word about the forgotten explosion of September 2001. It happened 10 days after the World Trade Center tragedy, when a TotalFinaElf fertiliser plant outside the city exploded. Given the world's preoccupation at the time, it didn't get much attention. But it has scarred the town terribly.

The explosion measured 3.4 on the Richter scale, was felt 80 kilometres away, injured 2,500 people and damaged about 20,000 buildings. A hundred buses parked at a depot nearby were written off. For such a large event, the death toll around 30 was miraculously small. All over town, there are people who have lost some hearing, bear scars, or been displaced at work.

Accident or sabotage? There has been some debate, but it seems the former.

While we watch for terrorists to blow up aeroplanes, let's not forget that factories have far less security, are often located close to population centres (Toulouse is France's fourth city) and can carry a lot of destructive potential.

So many ingenious methods of stealing exist in this world, I'm amazed that criminals have never bothered to exploit three obvious opportunities to steal baggage from travellers. At the risk of giving away ideas, the first is to lift suitcases off airport carousels and walk off with them before the owners notice. The second is to walk off with baggage from hotel lobbies; the third is to go up to a hotel reception, ask for the key to a room, and collect the valuables while the owner is out.

Hotels and airports have loads of baggage lying around, people coming and going, and no very visible checks to ensure people collect their rightful property. Does this kind of theft happen all the time? Or are staff more vigilant than they seem?

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