CASE 24 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 and 20 percent by BAE Systems) has caught up with Boeing, which had enjoyed two-thirds of the market since its 747 jumbo-jet entered commercial service in 1970. Many aircraft are no doubt bought and sold in entirely conventional ways. But many are not. After all, lots of airlines are still state-owned and not subject to normal business rules. Commission payments (licit or illicit) on multimillion-dollar aircraft deals increase the capital cost of aircraft, which are therefore subject to higher depreciation or operating-lease charges, or both. But these extra costs are barely discernible in the pool of red ink created by the carriers’ perennial losses. Aircraft purchases drag on for years, as airlines play Boeing and Airbus off against each other. Especially in a buyer’s market, deep discounts are common, performance guarantees are demanding, and manufacturers have to offer all sorts of sweeteners (e.g., aircraft trade-ins, unusual guarantees) to persuade an airline to switch to their aircraft. Unsurprisingly, given the regulated nature of international air travel, politics plays a part. For instance, no sooner had Air Mauritius bought Airbus A340s in 1994 than it obtained an upgrade from Paris Orly to Charles de Gaulle airport, which is Air France’s main base with better onward connections. Aircraft purchases have long been associated with controversy. In the 1970s, when Lockheed was still making civil jets, it was caught bribing Japanese ofﬁcials to buy its L1011 wide-bodied airliner. A Japanese prime minister was later charged and convicted in 1983 for taking a bribe. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was also disgraced for his involvement with Lockheed. This scandal led in 1977 to Congress passing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which forbids American companies, their ofﬁcers, or their representatives from bribing foreign ofﬁcials. Critics have often pointed out that American ﬁrms can sidestep the FCPA by using foreign subsidiaries and nationals to pay...
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