Airbus UK Pilot Hangs Up His Boots

Robin Southwell’s decision to depart from his position as President of Airbus UK after ten years in the role will have come as a great shock to the many of us that have known, respected and worked with him through his long and successful career in the UK aerospace and defence industry.

Southwell will leave Airbus early next month on an absolute high and at a time that the European aerospace and defence company has probably never been in such a strong position than now. During his time at Airbus UK, Southwell will have witnessed huge changes and he can justifiably claim not only to have overseen the massive expansion of demand at the Airbus wings facility in Flintshire, but also for managing the huge investment that has taken place to ensure that the UK could maintain the position as centre of excellence for all Airbus wing manufacturing.

In announcing his departure at the end of this month it is not only Airbus that is losing a champion it is the rest of the UK aerospace and defence industry as well. That Robin Southwell was different from the rest and that he was always prepared to speak his mind can hardly be argued. Political correctness was not necessarily to be considered his speciality but saying what needed to be said and getting the job done certainly was. His deep seated belief in Britain and the vociferous approach he took in challenging government to ensure that the UK should see the sense and necessity of maintaining strong design engineering capability, required skills and to understand the importance of having sovereign manufacturing capability has in my view stood him apart from a great many peers.

As some of you will know I had the pleasure of working closely with Robin Southwell for one of the two years he spent as President of the aerospace, defence and security industry trade association, ADS. While we may not have always agreed I can say that I have rarely if ever met anyone quite so dedicated to the importance of the UK maintaining sufficient design and engineering skills and manufacturing ability for both commercial and military aircraft. Indeed, I am hard pressed to remember anyone else over the past ten years that has worked so hard to further the UK aerospace and defence industry than Robin Southwell.

In this day and age there are in my view too few industry leaders that are prepared to speak their mind and stand up not only for the industry as a whole but for engineering, manufacturing and also for their people. Southwell has done that in abundance, and while his style and approach was not to everyone’s liking, he will be remembered in this industry for the manner in which he challenged, for the manner in which he took on government, for the way he has fought and stood up for his industry and also for his inability to suffer fools.

Blunt he certainly could be and intolerant of time wasting tactics, bureaucracy and indecision wherever he found it. There is nothing wrong with that and I am in little doubt that Airbus and the industry that he will probably leave behind will be far worse off for not having his skills to champion the cause, to push politicians into realising that maintaining engineering skills and sovereign manufacturing capability is absolutely crucial to the future growth of Britain.

As a UK Business Ambassador appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron, Southwell has worked tirelessly leading and working with UK industry delegations on trip abroad. Southwell has also worked hard over many years in an official capacity as non-executive director of Farnborough International and in pushing forward and developing the airshow that is held every two years. He has been a trustee of the Royal Air Force Museum which, at Hendon and Cosford, houses an important collection of military aircraft and rotary power and which also provides education facilities to ensure the role of air power is well understood.

Robin Southwell will be replaced as President of Airbus UK by Paul Kahn, a chartered engineer and former President and CEO of Thales Canada. With previous experience working in the Ministry of Defence Kahn will have an important job to do to ensure that Airbus UK meets self-set targets. While Robin Southwell and his team have recently overseen Voyager into service with the Royal Air Force it will be Kahn who will oversee the delivery and entry into service of the first A400M for the Royal Air Force next month.  That Kahn is an engineer is to be welcomed and that he will I am sure well understand the importance of maintaining the strong legacy he inherits at Airbus in the emphasis of graduate engineering and apprenticeship schemes and ensuring that the UK Airbus operations retain their high level of efficiency and competitiveness.

The news of Robin Southwell’s departure comes just a day after Airbus raised its 20-year total aircraft demand forecast to 31,400 aircraft which is 7% higher than its previous forecast made a year ago. For the record Airbus is forecasting single-aisle aircraft demand at 22,000 units and twin aisle/wide body demand of 9,300 aircraft. Airbus has placed a value of the total number of aircraft demand in its forecast at list prices to be $4.6trillion. Exciting times these certainly are in the international commercial aerospace industry and I am in no doubt that Airbus will rise to the challenges that further growth in demand will bring.

To Robin Southwell I will say thank you for your hard work, your entrepreneurial spirit, for the way that you have stood out from the crowd and been prepared to speak your mind to further the cause of industry and for your natural easy going ability and skills. We wish you well in whatever else you decide to do in the coming years and we hope too that your voice of reason and common sense in standing up for industry will not be completely lost.


CHW (25th September 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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