During Airbus Innovation Days in Hamburg last week, I asked Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier what is—for anyone in the aircraft manufacturing business—a pertinent question right now: does Airbus take any responsibility for causing supplier failures as a result of a strong push for the SFE catalogue?
To be specific, I asked:
“You’ve been very vocal about frustration with sub-tier suppliers. Do you feel in anyway that Airbus has been challenged by its own strategy to push SFE, to push for the catalogue, perhaps in an environment where your suppliers were already strained in their [production] load, should you have foreseen these results?”
To which Brégier replied:
“Well, unfortunately, our customers are strange customers. The passengers–it means you and me–when we fly they expect to have toilets with doors which close.”
This got laughs–even from me.
But aircraft delays over toilet doors aren’t really all that funny. Brégier knows that.
“When you don’t have a toilet this is a deduction, but even with a toilet we found the door closing is a bit difficult. So we tried to fix that time to time, but you can see between the door and the toilet so it is also not good.”
Such a funny man.
“To make it serious. Yes, I was not satisfied. I was upset, I would even say—if you don’t repeat it—I was pissed off.”
I repeated it. Others repeated it. Brégier expected us to repeat it. Got that, manufacturers? Fabrice is pissed off! Because of your toilets. See? Toilet humour.
But it’s not because of the toilets. It’s..
“Because I joined Airbus 10 years ago almost and we started with this new A350 development early in 2007. We went through tons of difficulties. We put together thousands of complex parts to assemble this aircraft and we are blocked because seats or toilets are not ready, or are not complete, or the quality is poor. You can imagine.”
Yes, subtext. You can imagine what it’s like to put together complex parts like avionics and engines and then have a simple little thing like cabin interiors mess up the whole works.
“So, It’s a bit like getting your new car and you have something missing which doesn’t allow you to drive it. Everything is there, except the driver seat, as an example.”
Or a tiny thing like the airbag, as an example.
“This is frustrating, but this is our responsibility to make it work with the suppliers. They are working–I know–very hard, but this is such a challenge to know whether they will recover in time,” he said.
Trim and Finish
The problem is that mine was a very “insidery” question. Brégier is a clever man, who knows his audience. He understood but ignored my query and answered the crowd instead.
One of the challenges of the aircraft manufacturing business is that while the true customer, you and me, the every day flyer Brégier refers to who wants the lavatory door to close, principally perceives the aircraft cabin as the product, the industry is built around engineers who pooh-pooh the cabin as ‘decor’ to a gorgeous engine, lovely wings and shiny lights that go ‘ding’.
I love engines. They are a real turn on. I find the aerodynamic quality of well engineered wings nearly orgasmic. I love me a nice bit of state of the art avionics and fly-by-wire magic. The fuselage, is oh, so, very big. Don’t get me started on landing gear.
But what good are of any of these for the mass transport of individuals without the cabin components that should just ‘fall in place’ at the last minute?
The interiors sector has always come last in aviation, and not just along the production line.
No one aerodynamically designs an aircraft around a set cabin design which would feel good to passengers; ensuring that the fuselage will fit that cabin, the engines can carry the load of the interiors components, the wings can stabilise the works, the controls can enhance the ride. That’s not how planes are made. They never have been.
Interiors are ‘fittings.’ You stick them in wherever physics allows and you trim weight and bulk to ensure everything gets in there without throwing off the dynamic requirements of the aircraft.
But you also have to be sure that while you trim you do not violate the demanding safety requirements which call for extreme loads of pressure (16Gs in the case of most seats) on impact. You have to ensure nothing burns down. You have to ensure passengers aren’t bumped around in turbulence hit their heads against a seat-back screen and become seriously injured.
You have to make sure the whole the cabin can put up with repetitive abuse from hundreds of crew and thousands of passengers misusing the equipment over and over and over to exhaustion.
This ‘fluff’ has to bend without breaking. And it has to look pretty.
While the field of aircraft interiors is just as male dominated as the rest of the aviation industry—it is the perfect metaphor for gender politics in aviation.
Prevalent industry perspective—despite the critical nature of interiors parts—is not unlike the attitude towards cabin crew:
“What? Oh, yes, we need that too. Make sure it looks nice. And cheap, please. We don’t want to blow the budget for the radome.”
For decades, the aircraft interiors industry has bowed down to this lowly status, worked very hard to get things right anyway, and faced a crisis of consolidation forced by the peaks and troughs of demand which come from those at the top deciding the interiors are so very well built they can last another generation with a quick wardrobe change.
State-Of-The-Art factories which cost millions to build up and get just right have shut down over a weekend. People with unique talents and knowledge that cannot easily be passed on—designers, engineers, program managers, quality control personnel—have lost their careers. Expert technicians have disappeared into other industries: automotive, for example.
A large part of that is due to price competitiveness. With OEMs wanting to hold a bigger share of the margins to be made on aircraft they have pushed airlines to buy from their catalogue under the guise of making the production process smoother—which it can be—but really also capitalising on bulk catalogue contracts which pass on a greater share of the profits to the OEM. That’s SFE (Supplier Furnished Equipment). The supplier, in this case, is the aircraft maker (OEM).
We Can Fix This
Sorry. I interrupted Mr. Brégier. What was he saying again?
“Having said that, we have many options and we have tested many contractural ways to have a better brief on cabin suppliers–who are very good at marketing.”
That’s right. That’s what he said.
On behalf of all aircraft interiors manufacturers everywhere: sorry for that. Sorry that we have been good at making your product look good and persuading airlines that they need something fresh and new to keep up with competition. We’ll stop all that nasty marketing now.
Anyway, please continue:
“We’re in a booming market because of both the ramp-up at Airbus and Boeing and they have the retrofit business they get on their own and they understaffed in engineering, manufacturing, quality, program management and supply chain management. They just cannot continue like that.”
Yes, I think I mentioned this above. They are understaffed. They cannot continue like this. But let’s keep putting pressure on them anyway!
“This message I will constantly repeat it very vocally and I will progressively manage to get rid of the delinquent suppliers who are not catching up to the standards which are requested by my customers–which are no longer the standards of the aerospace [industry] in the 70s or the 80s,” Brégier said.
Can We Pause For a Moment to Recall the 70s and 80s?
In the 70s and 80s there were five major cabin interiors manufacturers in the U.S. alone. Now, globally you are down to two with full competency for all cabin components.
In the 70s and 80s many airlines also had their own in-house teams of strong engineers and quality control people specialising in aircraft interiors as well as—some of them—completion shops for the little things and the mechanics and technicians who knew how to work every nook and cranny of an aircraft cabin and could have sorted that little troublesome toilet door in about a second, after they were done with their cigarette and coffee break.
In the 70s and 80s, regulations were also far less stringent. We were talking 9Gs of sled test requirements. It makes a difference.
In the 70s and 80s, no one was so very obsessed with trimming weight and making more room from no room left.
In the 70s and 80s, you could sort of reasonably expect to make a profit in the aircraft interiors sector. Not a lot. Probably not more than 30% or 35% margin. But some.
In the 70s and 80s there was no Airbus. Airbus itself is born of consolidation.
Not that Airbus is the problem. Airbus is a fine aircraft manufacturer making excellent aircraft in a market which is not in the 70s and 80s..just as its suppliers are fine suppliers making interiors for the 2010s, 20s and 30s.
They make much better products today than they did back in the 70s and 80s. Despite all the talk, flying today is loads better than it was in the 70s and 80s, if you care about safety, luxury, affordability, speed, or convenience.
The problem is…
You can’t get rid of Zodiac.
The industry would literally implode. That’s not hyperbole. This would happen:
Buying into Zodiac, for a cash infusion, may or may not fix the problem. I worry that it would only exasperate the “I don’t know anything about this product you make but let me help you make it better” syndrome that has put the industry in this very awkward position.
So for all his huffing and puffing Brégier is full of hot air. He knows it.
I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve crossed the deserts bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel I’ve had my share, man
I’ve been everywhere
So back to money, because this is what it’s all about anyway.
“Regarding the contractural elements, on the A350 honestly we have both cases,” Bregier said. “In some cases we are directly managing the supplier with some failures. In other cases the airlines have selected the so-called BFEs to be compared to the SFEs and they are also facing difficulties, deliveries and complaints.”
I tried to call Brégier out on this really silly reply, but was evidently using up too much time. Other questions got more time, but, admittedly, they played well to a general audience.
So, for a general audience, here is why what Mr. Brégier said in that last bit is absolute nonsense.
There are no BFE (Buyer Furnished Equipment) vs SFE (Supplier Furnished Equipment) suppliers. They are the very same small pool of suppliers. There are no back-up plan, pre-approved, ‘let’s switch over to Target because quality is getting bad at Wall-Mart’ supplier alternatives. That’s just not how this works.
There is a dangerously small pool of hyper-consolidated interiors suppliers with core-competencies sufficient to support the aircraft programs of Airbus, Boeing, and airlines wanting to make their own cabin changes. They are the very same suppliers, wearing different hats. There are smaller companies specialising in one particular cabin component or another, but only two, B/E Aerospace and Zodiac Aerospace, dominate the aircraft nose to tail.
All that BFE vs SFE means is that, with SFE, you’ve been cleared to be put on that OEM’s catalogue. In other words, their Quality people have met yours and they speak the same language. Your engineers and their engineers get along. Your sales team and their purchasing team are best buds—except when negotiating on price but that’s the job, right? They get between you and the real customer: the airline. But that’s OK, because you’ve got all these buds at the airline too. If need be, you can win the very same contract as BFE.
And why does that matter? For the aircraft manufacturer it only matters because of money. That’s it. The control factor is about money too. If OEMs control the supplier they get to negotiate favourable pricing, roll that into their equipment price, even get spares orders sometimes—with the margins on that which are nice.
But when things go ‘Lids Up’–as they have with the toilet situation and with American’s Business class seat issues–BFE v SFE makes all the difference.
Contractually, BFE suppliers are the airline’s worry. The supplier can have a dialogue with the airline early on to explain delays complications, whatever and the airline notifies Airbus or Boeing. If things don’t get sorted, then the airline could be forced to take the plane without the errant interiors parts installed. How they get sorted is the airline’s problem.
Not so on SFE. On SFE the delivery is not complete until everything is nicely in order and to the airline’s satisfaction.
SFE is always having to say I’m sorry.
If you were a manufacturer struggling to keep everybody happy and you knew that you could always get an airline who likes you to insist on your equipment as BFE anyway—so long as you keep them happy—which would you put on your priority fix list: delayed/problematic BFE orders or delayed/problematic SFE orders?
So we come round to my original question: “Do you feel in anyway that Airbus has been challenged by its own strategy to push SFE, to push for the catalogue, perhaps in an environment where your suppliers were already strained in their [production] load, should you have foreseen these results?”
I’ll leave you with this last from Brégier, who didn’t answer my question, but he sort of did.
“The reality is that we have to deal with that. We need to be stronger in our quality screening, our efforts sometimes to support these suppliers, but this [situation] is–I think–something that is not..what aerospace deserves.”