Sud Aviation and
the relationship between the government and the aerospace industry is very
different from that in the United States. American firms compete to win
contracts from the Department of Defence in Washington, relying on income
from those contracts to stay in business. Yet even the largest such
corporations remain in the hands of private individuals, including their
in France, the government owns the industry outright. In particular, the
government owns 97 percent of that country's largest aerospace company,
the firm of Aérospatiale. Officials in Paris thus have been free to use
this industry as an arm of the state, to advance French interests. Yet
experience has shown that, despite having the power of the state on their
side, aerospace leaders have found that there is no substitute for
responding to the demands of the market.
The story of
Aérospatiale begins around 1950 with its corporate predecessor, SNCASE.
The company was building a line of aircraft that were rather unexciting
but brought steady business. These included the Languedoc airliner and two
fighters, the Vampire and Mistral. The Vampire was British, being built
under license; the Mistral used a jet engine, the Nene, from Britain's
firm of Rolls-Royce. In sum, there was not an enormous amount of original
thinking at SNCASE.
in 1951 though, as the company began to build the Caravelle jetliner. The
Caravelle was not the world's first jetliner, but it was the first to fly
successfully. It had two engines and was built to serve short routes,
which were quite numerous in Europe. Significantly, its design placed
those engines at the rear of the airplane, behind the passenger cabin,
rather than under the wings, which led to a noisier ride. Passengers could
barely hear the engines, and the Caravelle became very attractive because
it was very quiet. Its jet engines also gave a smooth and comfortable ride
that was free of harsh vibrations.
the national airline, placed the first orders. That was to be expected; it
too was an arm of the state. However, nearly every other major European
airline also bought them. In a major breakthrough for France, America's
United Airlines purchased 20 Caravelles. This broke with the practice of
America's carriers, which together formed the largest market for airliners
in the world, buying only American-built aircraft.
Caravelles entered service in May 1959. Two years later, they flew an
array of European routes running from London to Casablanca in North
Africa, while extending eastward to Moscow and to Tel Aviv and Damascus in
the Middle East. In the United States, Caravelles were serving the
important route from New York to Chicago. By then SNCASE had merged with
another French planebuilder, Ouest Aviation, and had formed the powerful
new firm of Sud Aviation. Having achieved great success with Caravelle,
Sud now was ready for something new.
shape as the Concorde, a joint French-British attempt to build a
supersonic commercial airliner. However, it ran into cost overruns and
delays, largely because it was a political project. Four companies built
it: British Aircraft and Sud, along with Bristol Siddeley and the French
engine-building firm of SNECMA. However, all four were working as
subcontractors to their governments, which meant that political leaders
made the most important decisions. In particular, those leaders wanted the
Concorde program to provide jobs for workers, so they set up two separate
assembly lines, one in Britain and the other in France. Production
facilities are among the most costly parts of a major aircraft program,
and this decision brought a great deal of wasteful duplication.
the delays that ensued provided time for the Boeing 747 to emerge as a
rival. This enormous jetliner was far slower than the Concorde but was
very comfortable, and travelers liked its low fares. By contrast, the
Concorde came along just in time for the oil crises of the 1970s, which
sent the cost of jet fuel sky-high. The high-speed flight of Concorde was
achieved by burning as much fuel as the vastly larger 747 used, yet
Concorde carried only one-fourth as many passengers. Each of them then had
to pay four times as much as a 747 passenger did.
airlines ever purchased Concorde, and only in very small numbers. These
were the national carriers Air France and British Airways. The Concorde,
born in state decisions, ended the same way, as only the airlines of those
governments cared to buy them.
continued to expand, merging in 1970 with another rival, Nord Aviation,
and with the missile and space group called SEREB. Together they formed
Aérospatiale. By then, company officials had learned sharp lessons from
the Concorde. They vowed that on their next attempt, they would build
something that airlines actually would buy.
effort took shape within an international collaboration called Airbus
Industrie, which brought in British Aerospace as a partner, along with a
subsidiary of Germany's firm of Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm. They proceeded
to build the two-engine Airbus A-300 jetliner. It had the wide cabin of
Boeing's 747, which was popular for its spaciousness.
At first, the
A-300 looked like another flop. Few of them sold, while the French
government continued to build these aircraft to provide jobs. Aérospatiale
could not simply cut back production and lay off its workers, for French
law required that such unemployed people were to receive 90 percent of
their pay for a year, while retaining their extensive health benefits. As
a result, Airbus Industrie was building planes that no one wanted.
Yet while the
high price of fuel helped to kill Concorde, it saved Airbus, because the
A-300 burned less fuel. It had rivals in triple-engine wide-body
airliners—the Lockheed L-1011 and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. But the
A-300 had one less engine and hence was lighter in weight, which is why it
used less fuel.
The A-300 had
other advantages. Having only two engines, it was less costly to purchase.
The tri-jets had mounted an engine in the tail, but the A-300 avoided
this. Hence it could fit more fare-paying passengers into its cabin. The
A-300 soon drove the DC-10 and L-1011 from the market. This success opened
new doors for Airbus, which launched new projects and went on to challenge
Boeing for leadership in aviation.
also showed leadership in space flight. A European effort of the 1960s
sought to build the Europa launch vehicle, a three-stage rocket with
separate stages built in Britain, France, and Germany. All flight tests
failed, partly because there was no central authority that could tell
these sovereign governments what to do. Then in 1973, officials of
Aérospatiale stepped in.
to build a new launch vehicle called the Ariane. Other European nations
also were welcome to participate—but officials in France would make the
most important decisions, which would be binding on all. This approach
worked, with Ariane succeeding brilliantly on its very first flight late
in 1979. With this, the French went on to gain a strong advantage over the
United States. American space leaders had placed their hopes on the Space
Shuttle. But the explosion in flight of the Shuttle Challenger in
1986 showed that this launch vehicle was too complex for routine use and
could only fly in limited service. Aérospatiale went on to develop more
capable versions of the Ariane, which took much of the business of space
launches away from the Americans.