Some people bike to the office. Dan Detton dodges bikes inside his office. It's a hangar the size of 75 football fields, by volume the world's biggest building, where Detton, 37, an aeronautic mechanic, helps assemble the world's biggest commercial plane. He works for Boeing, the U.S.'s biggest exporter. And yet he observes, in the shadow of a Boeing 747, "Bigger isn't always better." A few years ago, those would have been fighting words at the Everett plant where Detton works, outside Seattle. But now even CEO Phil Condit is pushing the same line. Boeing, he insists, is becoming faster, more agile, more diversified. We're not an airplane company, he is fond of saying; we're an aerospace company.
This sort of talk elicits snickering halfway around the world, at the Toulouse, France, headquarters of Boeing's archrival, Airbus Industrie. Its executives scoff that there's only one reason bigger isn't better anymore at Boeing--because Airbus will soon have the biggest plane. John Leahy, the American who heads Airbus' marketing arm, beams like a proud papa as he guides a visitor through a full-scale model of the A380. "My plane has 50% more floor space than the standard 747, but I'm only putting in a third more seats," he boasts. He shows off a double staircase with brass handrails, a piano bar flanked by a reading area and a full-size shower. With a wingspan of 262 ft. (50 ft. more than the 747's) and the potential capacity to seat as many as 1,000 passengers (vs. 525 for the 747), the A380 has become the symbol of Airbus' new heavyweight status. In 1999 the company won the biggest share of new passenger-jet orders for the first time. So look who's big now.
The two companies can sound like a couple of jocks comparing size, but the trash talk masks a healthy degree of fear on both sides. The two aircraft manufacturers are betting billions on very different visions of the future of flying. Airbus believes that scarce gates and congestion at such big hubs as Tokyo's Narita, London's Heathrow and New York City's John F. Kennedy will create demand for 1,550 large-body jets like the A380 by the year 2020. Boeing disagrees. It anticipates that airport expansion and new construction in smaller cities will propel demand for more midsize and faster jets like the subsonic cruiser it is now developing. Whoever is closest to getting it right will win the choicer share of a commercial-jet market expected to be worth well more than $1 trillion by 2019.
With such sky-high stakes, the insults can get ugly. Boeing likes to portray Airbus as a pampered mama's boy that survives on subsidies from European governments. But this isn't child's play. The two companies' wagers on their futures matter not just to traveling global executives but also to thousands of suppliers of everything from engines to beverage carts. And the struggle of these two giants is instructive for any executive who has to reinvent his or her company.