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Europe's Airbus gives Boeing stiff competition

Jean Charles Poggi was pleased. ''For the first time in history, we are paying taxes,'' said the high executive of Societe Nationale Industrielle Aerospatiale, France's nationalized maker of aircraft, helicopters, missiles, and satellites.

Aerospatiale has made a profit before. But because of aircraft development costs, it has had sufficient write-offs to avoid taxes. Last year total sales of the Aerospatiale group came to 16.5 billion francs (about $2.44 billion), up from 13.5 billion francs in 1980. Profits last year before taxes were about 400 million francs.

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''We have been more successful in the last two years,'' said Mr. Poggi, head of strategic planning at Aerospatiale, in an interview. ''We are in good shape, and for the next two years that should not change.''

Boeing Company, Aerospatiale's chief competitor in the aircraft market, probably wishes it could say the same. Faced with a severe recession in the United States airline industry, Boeing's orders have dropped off sharply.

Boeing already has laid off some 5,000 in its home city of Seattle. Further, late last month United Airlines told Boeing it wanted to cancel or substantially delay delivery of 20 of its new-generation, wide-bodied aircraft, the 767.

''Life is also difficult for us,'' says Aerospatiale's Poggi. ''We do not sell very much.''

Last year Airbus Industries, an international consortium that is 37.9 percent owned by Aerospatiale, won orders for only about 40 airliners. That compares with around 150 two years ago. This year, Poggi figures, will not be easy either. However, Airbus Industries did last month win a $300 million order from the Brazilian domestic airline, VASP, for six Airbus A310 200-seat airliners.

Airbus Industries is a joint venture, with Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm of West Germany also holding 37.9 percent, British Aerospace 20 percent, and Construcciones Aeronauticas SA, a Spanish firm, 4.2 percent.

Airbus Industries has been fortunate that the bulk of the sales of its aircraft have been outside the particularly troubled US market. Many of its orders come from the Far East, where the airlines have still been growing. The consortium has a handsome backlog of orders that has so far been holding relatively firm. As of last month, the company had 507 orders or options for airliners. It had delivered 172 of the wide-bodied A300, capable of carrying 230 to 320 passengers.

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Poggi notes with satisfaction that Airbus Industries last year won 53 percent of new wide-bodied aircraft orders, compared to about 36 percent for Boeing. Boeing's market share peaked at 54 percent in 1978.

Boeing charges that Airbus Industries is fighting unfairly for sales. ''It is government to government negotiations and subsidized products that are beating us,'' says William McGinty, Boeing's director of public affairs. ''We think there is skulduggery on financing.'' Boeing is seeking help in Washington.

Airbus Industries denies such subsidy charges.

Of Airbus Industries' total orders and options, some 180 are for the A310, a member of the Airbus family which can carry around 210 passengers. It flew for the first time in April, and should be certified next spring.

Aerospatiale has been stepping up its production schedule at its Toulouse plant. Plans call for the assembly of seven to eight planes a month by 1984, compared to about four now. But, Mr. Poggi noted, this production curve could be altered if orders remain in the doldrums.

A big decision ahead for Airbus Industries is whether to go ahead with development of a short-to-medium-haul airliner, the A320. The 150-seat, narrow-bodied aircraft would cost some $2 billion to develop. It would be intended as a replacement for Boeing's 727, probably the world's top-selling airliner with some 1,900 flying.

Mr. Poggi said the consortium needed three conditions to launch the project:

1. Launching orders. Air France says it will take 50. But Lufthansa says it is not yet interested because it has so many Boeing craft not yet fully amortized.

Poggi hopes for an order from Delta, one of the financially healthy airlines in the US.

2. An engine. General Electric, Pratt Whitney, and Rolls Royce have been thinking over most carefully the merits of investing some $1.5 billion in a new engine some 13 percent more fuel efficient than their existing engines. It would require new technologies.

''If Delta makes an order, then they would move,'' says Poggi.

Alternatively, with fuel costs stagnating unexpectedly, the engine makers might consider a less-expensive derivative from present engines that would save only 7 to 10 percent in fuel, Poggi noted.

3. Financing. France, said Poggi, is willing to put up its share of the development costs. ''The British wish to go, but have problems of getting money. The Germans are a question. All government levels have budget problems.''

Mr. Poggi hopes that improving air traffic will put the airlines in better shape by the end of this year. That, he says, could lead to a decision on the A 320 between mid-1983 and the end of 1983.

Airbus Industries has other plans. It will use some of the new technology in the A310, such as on-board digital computers for simplified and lighter flight control, in a new version - the A300-600 - of the original airbus. Under study is a cargo version, the stretched TA9, and a long-haul TA11.

Despite its current sales slump, Airbus Industries sees a bright future. One company study predicts deliveries of some 8,550 airplanes between now and the end of the century to the 200 major world airlines.

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