How a blown engine won Airbus a $US3.5 billion deal

Last November, a Rolls-Royce Trent engine explosion on a Qantas A380 superjumbo sent tremors through the aviation industry. Eight years earlier a blowout on a similar engine virtually handed John Leahy a $US3.5 billion deal.

In 2002, Leahy took an Airbus A340 test plane to Johannesburg for an unprecedented fly-off against a Boeing 777 that would see South African Airways entire board taken aloft for two trial flights.

The omens were not good. The latest stretched model of the A340 was not yet in service and Airbus only had a drab-looking test plane available for the contest. SAA, a longtime Boeing customer, had decided the Airbus should fly first; behind the scenes there were problems getting the plane ready on time.

Finally, the four-engined A340 took off, wheeling above South Africa's high veldt as Leahy plied his guests with champagne and sales chat. The Airbus exec's sales spiel had been built around the slogan "four engines are better than two", and Leahy emphasised that this was especially true in hot, high airports like Johannesburg where engines need to work harder.

Boeing argued four engines were twice the trouble.

It was the worst experience of my sales life.

After the Airbus landed, it was time for Boeing's Toby Bright to transfer the passengers onto his 777 wide-body and take it through its paces. As the Boeing thundered down the runway, though, one of its two Trent 800 engines seized up with a loud bang and take-off was aborted.

"We had to screech to a stop on the runway, taxi back and park beside the A340 and John Leahy was standing there," recalls Bright. "It was the worst experience of my sales life. As soon as I saw the engine had blown I knew we had lost."

Read: John Leahy: the man who made Airbus number one

The impact was almost lost when a Rolls representative reminded the shaken airline executives that the Airbus plane also had Rolls-Royce Trent engines. "I didn't talk to that guy for another year and a half," Leahy says.

Airbus won the contract but the 777 has gone on to outsell the A340 six to one.