12/18/1970: Airbus Industrie Becomes GIE

Airbus was officially created on this day in 1970. Today, the European manufacturer remains the largest plane maker in the world in terms of aircraft delivered.



December 18, 2023

DALLAS — Today in Aviation, Airbus was formed through a government initiative between France, West Germany, and the UK. The manufacturer originated in 1967 and was formally established as a Groupement d'Intérêt Économique (Economic Interest Group, or GIE) on December 18, 1970.

In the 1950s and 1960s, although many European aircraft were revolutionary in their own right, production was limited for European airframes. On the other side of the pond, things looked different for American aircraft manufacturers. There were three main reasons why the US was ahead.

First, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed had benefited from the sheer size of the US, which helped to popularize air transport. Secondly, they benefited from an Anglo-American agreement in 1942, entrusting the production of transport aircraft to the US. Thirdly, US manufacturing had established its WWII legacy as "a profitable, vigorous, powerful and structured aeronautical industry."

During the 1960s, several European aircraft manufacturers had drawn up competitive designs for new aircraft to compete with US aircraft. Still, they were all too aware of the risks of such an endeavor. The European industry began to understand that cooperation was the key to producing an aircraft capable of transporting 100 or more passengers at low cost over short to medium distances.

The rollout of the A300 with Concorde in attendance. Photo: Airbus

The Formation of Airbus Industrie GIE 

Negotiations soon began on a European collaborative approach, and the major European airlines discussed their requirements informally at the 1965 Paris Air Show for a new 'Airbus.' Five years later, Airbus Industrie GIE was set up as a consortium of European aviation firms formed to compete with American manufacturers.

The initial shareholders were Aérospatiale, a French company, and Deutsche Airbus, a West German company, each with a 50% stake. They took the name 'Airbus' from a non-proprietary word that the airline industry used in the 1960s to refer to commercial aircraft of a certain size and range. The term was linguistically appropriate in French.

Aérospatiale and Deutsche Airbus each took a 36.5% share of manufacturing jobs, 20% for Hawker Siddeley, and 7% for the Dutch company Fokker-VFW. Each company was responsible for delivering fully equipped, ready-to-fly aircraft sections.

In October 1971, Spanish company CASA purchased a 4.2% share of Airbus Industrie, with Aérospatiale and Deutsche Airbus decreasing their combined shares to 47.9%. British Aerospace gained a 20% share of Airbus Industrie in January 1979, which had absorbed Hawker Siddeley in 1977. Most shareholders reduced their shares to 37.9%, while CASA held 4.2%.

Air France was the launch customer for the A300. Photo: Airbus

The Airbus A300

The Airbus A300 was intended to be Airbus' first aircraft to be designed, produced, and marketed. The 'A300' mark started to be applied to a planned 320-seat, twin-engined airliner in early 1967. Roger Béteille was named Technical Director of the A300 development project following the 1967 tri-government agreement. According to Airbus, Béteille insisted that a high level of technology be built into the A300 to give it the edge over competing aircraft.

The newly-appointed Technical Director formed a labor division that would be the basis of the development of Airbus for years to come. 

France would manufacture the cockpit, flight control, and the lower center section of the fuselage. Hawker Siddeley, whose Trident technology had impressed Béteille, would produce the wings. West Germany would make the forward and rear parts of the fuselage, as well as the upper center section. Meanwhile, the Dutch would create the flaps and spoilers, and soon-to-be full partner Spain would produce the horizontal tailplane.

The West German, French, and British governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in London on September 26, 1967, allowing for ongoing development studies. Sud Aviation became the "lead company," meaning that France and the UK would each have a work share of 37.5%, with West Germany taking 25%. UK-based Rolls-Royce would manufacture the A300 engines.

Béteille spoke years later of the importance of technology and recalled how beneficial the mix of cultures was. "The basic idea of Airbus has always been to compete against established manufacturers. We had to bring something more. Something more was daring to use advanced technology wherever it could bring economic results. We had to take more risks of failure than the established manufacturers. But we could make use of different experiences, education, and ways of looking at things."

The Airbus A310 production line. Photo: Airbus

Airbus Aircraft for All Sectors

The A300 made its maiden flight in 1972; in 1974, its first production model, the A300B2, entered service. While overshadowed by the Concorde, the launch of the A300 was the seed of what Airbus is today. 

Airbus' founding partners, Béteille and German engineer Felix Kracht, shared a vision for the company's future. They knew that to succeed, Airbus would have to produce more than one aircraft; it needed to offer a family of aircraft covering all sectors.

Airbus SE is now a multinational aerospace company and the result of the most important international restructuring of the European aerospace industry, the creation of the GIE consortium of Airbus Industrie in 1970.

The 'SE' in the name means it is a Societas Europaea, which allows it to be registered as European rather than Dutch. In January 2022, Airbus was named the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world for the third year in a row, delivering 661 commercial aircraft to 84 customers last year—an increase of 8% in 2021.

According to Airbus, the total number of deliveries for the year reached 623 units in November 2023. The planemaker confirmed that it would need to achieve 97 deliveries in December to meet its full-year goal of 720 deliveries, a target relatively attainable for the company.

Featured Image: The Airbus fleet flying in formation to mark the plane maker's 50th anniversary. Photo: Airbus