Airbus Parent Investigating Delays In A380 Production

Co-chairman says he wasn't aware of issues affecting the suberjumbo jet. Boeing could be beneficiary.

PARIS (AP) - Airbus parent company EADS will launch a probe into the latest delays of the superjumbo A380, its co-chairman said in an interview released Thursday, amid mounting questions about the management of the European conglomerate.

Arnaud Lagardere, co-chair of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., said he had no knowledge of the production problems with the A380 _ the world's biggest passenger plane _ until Airbus made an announcement Tuesday, according to newspaper Le Monde.

Lagardere said EADS would launch a probe that would determine whether EADS' co-Chief Executive Noel Forgeard would keep his job. Forgeard, who launched the A380 as head of Airbus in 2000, on Wednesday deflected suggestions that the setback could cost him his post.

Lagardere said the investigation also aimed to determine the actions of Airbus co-Chief Executive Gustav Humbert.

''The main question is...whether the Airbus chief was aware of the internal situation,'' Lagardere said.

The interview comes amid revelations that Forgeard and his family and other top EADS managers sold off shares before Airbus announced the delays _ delays that sent the company's stock tumbling and angered airlines worldwide.

Shares in EADS plunged more than 25 percent Wednesday after the delay and a profit warning, shaving millions of euros (dollars) off the company's value. Stock prices rallied slightly Thursday morning, up 2.8 percent at euro19.26 (US$24.22).

They remained well below the price of mid-March, when Forgeard and his family and other top managers sold off large packets of shares, according to filings with France's stock market regulator AMF.

Forgeard exercised euro2.5 million (US$3.1 million) worth of options at euro32.01 (US$40.21), and three of his children each sold euro1.4 million (US$1.75 million) worth of shares in the same period, at euro32.82 (US$41.23), according to the regulator. Board members Francois Auque and Jean-Paul Gut also sold shares.

An EADS representative said Forgeard's share sales were not informed by the A380's production delays, but declined further comment.

Traders and the French press questioned the timing of the sales and how much the executives new about the A380's troubles.

Lagardere's company Lagardere SA also sold a 7.5 percent stake in EADS earlier this year, but the executive insisted that he had no idea of the A380's troubles until this week.

''We had no information,'' he was quoted as saying. ''If (we) had been dishonest, we would not have sold 7.5 percent but all of our shares.''

Lagardere's comments suggest serious fractures within the management of EADS, a showcase European project jointly led by French and German management.

''All of this seriously hurts the image of this European jewel'' and ''sharpens the teeth of Boeing,'' the daily Liberation wrote Thursday. ''And it gives a bit of grist for the mill ... for the bards of Euroskepticism.''

The production delays raised questions about the A380's future, as rival Boeing Co. is staking its bets on a smaller, more fuel-efficient model.

Airlines worldwide demanded compensation, reconsidered orders _ and crucial customer Singapore Airlines slapped Airbus in the face with a deal Wednesday for 20 Boeing 787-9 aircraft worth US$4.52 billion (euro5.68 billion). Airbus had hoped Singapore would by the A350, a planned competitor to the 787 that has been plagued with problems.

Airbus had a small boost Thursday, however, from a deal with Chinese flag carrier Air China Ltd. to buy 24 Airbus A320 aircraft, as part of a package involving the purchase of 150 Airbus jetliners by mainland airlines.