Airbus A380 delays disputed

PARIS – When did management at Airbus parent EADS know about the profit-damaging delays to the A380 superjumbo jet?

The question is central to investigations by French and German authorities into possible insider trading by EADS executives. On Tuesday, media mogul and EADS co-chairman Arnaud Lagardere answered the French market regulator AMF, and EADS co-chief executives, Louis Gallois and Thomas Enders, spoke to two senators doing their own inquiry.

European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. and Airbus denied a report Tuesday in business daily La Tribune that Airbus technical director Alain Garcia told board members about problems with the A380 on March 7, 2006, the same day executives began selling shares – and three months before the delays were announced.

“This we deny categorically,” said Airbus spokesman Barbara Kracht. “The A380 was not the subject of Mr. Garcia’s intervention.” She did not say what was.

The report relies on evidence from businessman Jean Galli Douani, who La Tribune says is in an ongoing dispute with Airbus over a jet sale.

Douani taped a 20-minute telephone conversation with Garcia in which Garcia said board members had discussed “significant” delays to the program as well as “Airbus’ serious industrial difficulties,” the paper said.

Official records of the March 7 meeting don’t mention the A380, the newspaper said.

Douani delivered the recording to Xaviere Simeoni, the French judge investigating possible insider trading, when Douani was interviewed by the AMF May 2, the report said. The AMF declined to comment.

La Tribune also said it has an internal production document written March 6, 2006, which cut back the A380 delivery schedule for 2007 from 29 superjumbos to 24, leaving the planemaker no margin for error.

The board meeting was the next day, March 7. That evening, then-Airbus co-chief executive Noel Forgeard began selling millions of dollars worth of stock, the newspaper said.

EADS’ Web site shows that Forgeard and other executives exercised stock options within two weeks following the March 6 meeting. In fact, La Tribune said, some 85 percent of the company’s 800 top officials exercised options soon after the meeting, despite a March 8 announcement of record profits in 2005.

As far as ordinary shareholders were aware, Airbus was flying high, beating its American rival Boeing Co. on orders in 2005 and expecting to increase profitability in 2006.

On June 13, 2006, the board met again and announced new delays to the A380. EADS issued a profit warning that sent the stock plunging 26 percent in one day. The stock has yet to recover.

In all, Airbus has suffered from two years of accumulated delays to the 555-seat A380, which have wiped more than 5 billion euros ($6.6 billion) off the company’s profit forecasts for 2006-2010. The company also has to fund the development of the A350, its answer to Boeing’s 787 long-range, mid-sized aircraft. Airbus also has been plagued by a falling dollar – the currency in which it sells its planes – because it pays salaries and other operational costs in euros.

Forgeard left in July with a widely criticized 8.5 million-euro severance package, and a series of management changes ensued. The company announced a huge restructuring plan this year that foresees thousands of layoffs and factory closures. Forgeard has denied accusations of insider dealing, saying he sold the shares before being informed of the A380 delay.

Arnaud Lagardere, whose company Lagardere SCA holds 15 percent of EADS but intends to cut its stake to 7.5 percent by 2009, said last spring that he had no idea about the A380 production problems and encouraged the AMF to investigate the stock sales.

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