Flight Plan

An Indo-French romance that’s half-a-century old

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on June 25, 2019 Published on June 25, 2019

NEW DELHI, 30/06/2016: Airbus A 320 aircaraft operated by Air India taxis at IGI Airport, in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

Fifty years and going strong, that is Airbus’ association with India. Ashwini Phadnis traces the relationship over the years

Airbus’ entry into the Indian civil aviation market is the stuff that legends are made of. Airbus, which completed 50 years on May 29, made its first forays into India in 1975 or about six years after the company was set up.

Legend has it that Bernard Lathiere took over Airbus at that time and started following an aggressive sales policy, which was also targeted at India. Lathiere was India-born and India was among his first ports of call. He came armed with a photograph of himself as a young boy with Gandhiji, to persuade Indian Airlines to buy the newly-produced Airbus A-300.

No one knows how much truth there is to this story but he did manage to sell the A-300 aircraft to Indian Airlines, with the first being delivered in 1976.

However, Airbus’ association with India dates back to 1961 when it delivered the first Alouette III helicopter to the Indian Navy. The following year, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) entered into licensed production of Airbus Helicopter’s Alouette III design. Since then, Airbus’ footprint in India has been growing.

Placing things in perspective, David Velupillai, Marketing Director, Airbus, says that since the Toulouse-headquartered Airbus did not have a large home market, it targeted the world market from the start. What also helped was the fact that the company was willing to make changes to its products — like how it made structural modifications to the aircraft that it sold Indian Airlines. This involved adding a four-wheel bogey instead of a two-wheel one to the Airbus A-320 aircraft.

“This allowed it to go to airports in India that did not have a strong enough runway to handle the two-wheel landing gear,” Velupillai recalls. Indian Airlines was the only airline that operated this version of the aircraft.

Over the years, the company’s association with India has moved beyond just supplying aircraft as it is relying on India for its other needs — aircraft parts, IT solutions and training entrepreneurs.

Take, for instance, Dynamatic Technologies, which is the sole supplier of flat track beams for Airbus A-320 and A-330 aircraft. These beams are manufactured in India and dispatched to Europe where they are fitted into the assembly lines and delivered to customers across the globe.

Since 1988, the Bengaluru-based HAL has been producing the forward passenger doors for the Airbus A-320. This programme continues to date.

According to Anand E Stanley, President and Managing Director, Airbus India and South Asia, if one looks at the Airbus A-320 aircraft, be it materials, components, design, engineering or services, “we touch almost all the aircraft from India”.

Commenting on Airbus’ 50-year relationship with India, Arun Kumar Sampathkumar, Industry Manager, Aerospace and Defence Practice, Frost & Sullivan, says, “Airbus has been the largest contributor of aircraft and related products and services, easily amounting to 60 per cent of the installed base in India. Airbus aircraft have historically been preferred over others owing to lower prices and ease of maintenance.”

According to Stanley, Airbus has evolved from being a company with a footprint only in Europe to being a company that is in heart European but is a global multinational. “Today, as we have integrated one brand under Airbus and come 50 years ahead, we find there are three real unique epicentres of growth for us — one is the world’s largest aerospace market, the US, the second, the largest future growth market, China, and the third is India and South Asia,” he says.

Airbus is also partnering with India in other aspects. For example, it set up the Airbus Engineering Centre in Bengaluru in 2007. The Centre specialises in high-tech aeronautical engineering and works closely with other Airbus engineering offices around the world and also with the Indian aerospace industry.

It has around 500 engineers working across both fixed and rotary wing Airbus aircraft programmes. This is the only centre in the world that is “vertically and horizontally” connected with the Airbus A-320.

What also makes the India centre special is that no other country or centre has that much depth and breadth and it is now scouting for innovations, for entrepreneurs from Israel to South-East Asia and everything in between. “We have people reaching out from Kenya and West Africa saying, ‘will you help us develop our technology’ and we are bringing them here,” Stanley says.

Airbus brings in and develops suppliers, technology and innovators through India and then takes it to global Airbus.

What the future holds

Stanley is clear that India will continue to play a major role not just as a market but also as a base for more. “Ten years ago, we thought it could be a base for parts, it could be a base for MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) but what it is evolving into is a base for digital and technological superiority through its talent,” Stanley says, adding that the next areas that Airbus is looking at for expanding in India are support and infrastructure for MRO and training of pilots and skilling.

Published on June 25, 2019
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