Further evidence of this increasing strength came on 1 May, 1996, when Airbus announced it had set up a “large aircraft division” to develop plans for the A3XX. This was the moment Airbus is said to have “got serious” about its vision of an aircraft which would carry around 600 people and dominate the most lucrative end of the market. The role of the newly created division, said Airbus, was to “further refine the market studies undertaken so far, to define the basic specifications of the new airliner, taking into account the design studies done since 1990 and inputs from the airline working group.”
But the unprecedented size of the A3XX programme and the financial risks involved required a bold and imaginative approach to development funding. Airbus said its large aircraft division “will also look into the broadening of the industrial and financial structures for the programme and establish a business case.”
When Noël Forgeard took over from Jean Pierson as President and Chief Executive Officer in January, 1998, he found an organisation in great form – 1997 had been a record year for sales, with 460 firm orders and 13 new customers. (Firm orders included 124 A319 and A320s for US Airways, consolidating Airbus’ foothold in North America, and the milestone of the 2,500th firm order received by Airbus since it began.) Airbus had won 50 per cent of the market. Plans to build the A3XX were well advanced. Ever mindful of the need to listen to customers, Airbus was in consultation with some 20 leading airlines about what they wanted to see in the new double-decker.
And within weeks of Forgeard’s arrival Airbus won a major order, the first from British Airways: 59 A319s and A320s, with options for a further 129. It was British Airways’ biggest ever order for new aircraft and opened the way to a new relationship with Airbus and the British flag carrier. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, travelled to Toulouse for the celebrations