When Boeing launched the medium-sized 787 to compete with the A330, Airbus responded defensively. It's answer, the A350, was basically an A330 with carbon wings and new engines, rather than a new plane.
"People were cringing at the time, saying it was inelegant or 'how can you put a patch on a broken leg'," said Henri Courpron, chairman of Plane View Partners and former head of Airbus North America.
Soon, Airbus customers in Boeing's backyard, like Northwest Airlines and Air Canada, were writing cheques for 787s. Airbus found itself straining to compete with both flagship Boeings.
In December/2005, pressure reached boiling point with two big Boeing wins. Qantas chose the 787; Cathay Pacific picked the 777.
An internal post-mortem on Qantas laid out the problem: the original A350 was "reactionary" and Airbus had lost credibility.
Airbus Chief Executive Gustav Humbert called in his 43-year-old strategy chief Olivier Andries and gave him a delicate task.
"I asked him to take the best guys and set up a long-range policy team," said Humbert, who is now retired.
Humbert urged him to consider whether Airbus could capture 50% of the big-jet market, up from 35-40%, by straddling the largest 787 and smallest 777: around 300 seats.
"I was encouraged to think outside the box ....about the whole long-range strategy," said Andries, now chief executive of engine firm Turbomeca. He declined to discuss details.
Monitored by a team of retired "Wise Men," the group of 10 drew up confidential scenarios from makeovers to bold new jets.
In March/2006, Udvar-Hazy, who now runs Air Lease, piled on pressure by urging Airbus to drop its cautious A350.
"We looked at the economics and concluded it was not a contender in a meaningful way. So I felt it would get a silver medal and didn't deserve to get built," said Udvar-Hazy.
Based on the article “Flying back on course: the inside story of the new Airbus A350 jet” published in Reuters.