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All Change at Airbus UK By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

Confirming the appointment of Katherine Bennett as group senior vice-president of Airbus UK Tom Ender, Airbus chief executive reminded of how since she arrived at the company in 2004 Katherine “had worked tirelessly to build support and understanding of the company across the UK Government and other stakeholders, and [that he] was looking forward to working with her more closely in this new role”.

The appointment of Katherine Bennett to this newly created role reporting directly to Tom Enders marks a significant change in the management structure of Airbus UK. In her new role for which she is ideally suited having previously been Senior Vice President, Public Affairs she will take over the important role previously held by the highly respected Paul Kahn who for the past three years was CEO and President Airbus Group UK.

The question being asked by many is whether the announcement of change in Airbus UK management structure signals a downgrading of the UK by Airbus Group? While the management change is significant and many will be disappointed to see the departure of Paul Kahn it will clearly be difficult to avoid the conclusion that that this marks a change in stance by Airbus Group.


There can be little doubt that the decision by UK voters to leave the European Union came as a huge disappointment to management of Airbus Group. In addition to speeches made by Paul Kahn up and down the country over the past three years, he along with Airbus Group CEO, Tom Enders have worked extremely hard putting sensible arguments across in support of the UK remaining in the EU. Well they might as well because Airbus is extremely important to the UK and the importance of the in-excess of £8 billion contribution made by Airbus UK operations to the national economy cannot be ignored.


Putting the above into perspective, approximately 118,000 highly skilled people are directly employed by Airbus in Broughton, North Wales or at important locations such as Bristol, Stevenage, Portsmouth and not to forget either, at Airbus Helicopter at Oxford, those employed in the Air Tanker consortium at RAF Brize Norton plus those supporting the A400M for the RAF at the same bases together with those employed at Vector Aerospace in Hampshire, at Surrey Satellite Technology in Surrey and the in-excess of half that number of employees again who work within the UK supply chain. We should also remember that Airbus UK takes its responsibilities in STEM, graduate training schemes and apprentice training very seriously recognising the importance of encouraging and bringing on the next generation of skills requirement.


The above paragraph serves as an important reminder of just how important Airbus is to the UK economy. While from a commercial position the last three years have been brilliant for Airbus UK particularly from the perspective of its largest UK based activity, commercial aircraft wing manufacturing, one can also say that the past three years have been particularly tough in respect of what became Brexit and also in the challenge of bringing the A400M into service with the Royal Air Force.


The change in UK management structure are in my view most probably now complete. In Katherine Bennett and who I might add gave the most recent Amy Johnson lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society just a couple of weeks ago, Airbus has someone who is very solid, highly respected and well-known, a very good communicator and someone who importantly, knows her way around Westminster and the corridors of power. She is not the only important Brit in Airbus of course as Tom Williams remains as Chief Operating Officer of Airbus Group. Jeremy Greaves, of whom it may be said is a very well-known personality in Airbus UK, is now Vice President, UK Corporate Affairs and Strategy. Colin Paynter continues to head the Defence and Space business and Mark Stewart, Human Resources.


I for one will very much miss Paul Kahn at Airbus and it would be wrong to ignore the superb job of work that he has done over the three years he was President of Airbus UK. Paul was brought into Airbus UK from outside to lead the Integration of the various UK Airbus brand businesses, to make these more collaborative based and mutually supportive of each other and to win more business for Airbus Helicopters. During his period he secured first ever funding of rotary wing technology development in UK for Airbus and aerospace technology funding to the Zephyr solar powered high altitude unmanned system.


He leaves a business in far better shape operationally and one that is stronger and that is growing with greater confidence within Airbus global operating activities. Airbus UK performs very well within the larger Airbus Group and it is today leaner and fitter than it was. Having achieved successful entry into RAF service of the A400M (Atlas) aircraft worked hard with the customer to achieve with higher reliability and greater availability than any other A400M operating nation and which has been achieved in my view through a strong collaborative approach, he can be proud of what has finally been achieved.

Importantly, Paul Kahn has led a cultural change within Airbus UK promoting integrity as a core Airbus value. He has overseen the implementation of new compliance systems. He leaves the company I suspect because restructuring of Airbus Group globally has resulted in less positions at all levels – my understanding is that approximately 1,164 positions have or are being lost from corporate functions.

In helping to shape Airbus to be an increasingly competitive and global business was clearly going to mean that costs would need to be reduced and some of these would need to be at the centre.

Clearly, with Brexit in mind, the opportunity for Paul Kahn to move on within Airbus Group was obviously somewhat restricted by events. He will no doubt turn up into a senior management position in due course and I for one certainly hope that he will. He remains until the end of this year as President of the Aerospace Defence and Security trade association ADS.

While the future for Airbus UK should be seen as being very positive there will naturally be a degree of uncertainty in the months and years ahead. The hope is that Airbus UK will continue to prove itself within the wider Airbus Group and that it continues to have strengths that are not possessed elsewhere. Clearly, Brexit has and will continue to be a major challenge for Airbus UK and it will have to counter suggestions that the UK is no longer the right place to invest long term. The UK may have lost a strong voice in Paul Kahn but in Katherine Bennett and Tom Williams it continues to have the makings of continued strength.

CHW (London – 18th July 2017)

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