WASHINGTON: Sean O’Keefe, who led the bold but ultimately unsuccessful campaign by EADS North America to win the contract to build a new airborne tanker for the United States, is stepping down from his post as CEO and chairman of the American portion of the company now known as Airbus Group Inc. But O’Keefe is not leaving the company.
The official line is almost good enough to buy. O’Keefe said in a statement that he has “been wrestling with continued medical challenges” from the terrible wounds inflicted when he crashed in a plane flying with former Sen. Ted Stevens. The senator died in the crash. O’Keefe tells us he “just recently” had “another surgical procedure to correct on-going, but new complications resulting from the aircraft accident.” The outcome of “this latest surgery is positive,” but he goes on “that the new complications will preclude the devotion of my best efforts to the duties of CEO of Airbus Group, Inc.” So, he says, he needs to “to focus on a more aggressive rehabilitation regime.”
The result: his boss, Airbus CEO Tom Enders, “has agreed to let me step down as the leader of our US enterprise.” But O’Keefe isn’t leaving. Instead, he says he “will dedicate myself to facilitating the successful and compliant assignment of the Special Security Agreement to the defense and space related business unit in the US and Americas.”
Who’s replacing him? Allan McArtor, former FAA Administrator and current head of the commercial wing of the American subsidiary. Our interpretation is that, while there is no doubt O’Keefe suffers considerable pain on a regular basis from his accident, he was nudged to the side as part of the long-coming supremacy of the commercial aviation side of Airbus over what used to be called EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company.
With the ongoing defense downturn and the almost complete domination of the upper reaches of the company by the civilian part of the company, it seems almost de rigueur that O’Keefe, with his expertise in space and defense, would be supplanted, just like the European defense and space officials at what is now Airbus. O’Keefe let slip this nice hint in his release, when he notes McArtor’s “insightful perspective on the commercial and government markets uniquely equip him” for his new job. Note the position of commercial and the absence of any mention of defense.
What’s in a name, Juliet asked in her famous query. In this case, Airbus, with its commercial whiff, smells sweeter to investors and to the European company’s leaders than does the old EADS. It also marks the symbolic ascendancy of commercial over defense aerospace. And that, dear friends, meant the symbolic act of elevating McArtor over O’Keefe was written in the stars.