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Ethics and Airbus

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  • March 2012
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CASE 24 Ethics and Airbus
One September, a fraud squad, led by Jean-Claude Van Espen, a Belgian magistrate, raided Airbus’s headquarters in Toulouse. “They wanted to check whether there was possible falsification of documents, bribery or other infractions as part of the sale of Airbus aircraft to Sabena,” says Van Espen’s spokesman. The team of 20 Belgian and French investigators interviewed several Airbus employees during its three-day stay in Toulouse and carted away boxes of documents. In November 1997, Sabena had approved an order for 17 Airbus A320s (narrow-bodied aircraft), which it did not need. Even more oddly, it had doubled the order at the last minute to 34, a move that helped trigger the airline’s collapse four years later. Although nominally controlled by the Belgian government, Sabena was run by the parent company of Swissair, SAirGroup, which had owned a stake of 49.5 percent since 1995 and which also went bust in 2001. A former Sabena manager, who arrived after the Airbus order was placed, says that the planes were not needed: “It was a fatal business decision.” A Belgian parliamentary commission’s recent report confirms that the Airbus order was a big cause of Sabena’s collapse. Van Espen’s separate criminal investigation is continuing. According to the report, it started in October 2001 after Philippe Doyen, then a Sabena employee, lodged a complaint. Among other things, he suggested to Van Espen that he interview Peter Gysel, a former Swissair employee now working at Airbus, who put together Sabena’s deal with Airbus. Gysel denies any impropriety. The former Sabena manager says: “I never got the slightest whiff that the decision was driven by kickbacks, sidepayments, and so on. But I cannot rule anything out.” Neither does Van Espen. Today airlines are ordering about 400 aircraft a year. But in good times, 800 planes, worth around $60 billion, are sold a year. In the past ten years Airbus (originally a consortium, now owned 80 percent by EADS...