"Over the past three years, the public [has gone] from [thinking] Airbus runs shuttles between park- ing lots and terminals to" knowing Airbus as the maker of the A380, says Airbus Americas VP of communications Clay McConnell, who joined the France-based company six-and-a-half years ago when the A380 was in its infancy. "This plane has really captured people's imagination."
The A380 is clearly a milestone in aviation history, though that has not been the only cause of media attention. An electrical problem severely delayed delivery, which was costly and damaged Airbus' reputation. Global leadership turbulence compounded problems.
"You can look at [the delay] as a problem, which it was, and you can look at it is as an opportunity," McConnell explains. "We tested the airplane significantly and [toured] it around the world to make sure reaction is, 'It's fantastic,' not, 'There's a problem.'
"People love the plane," McConnell adds. "We call it the rock star - we're just roadies. It's fun and easy when you have good material."
Airbus and US-based Boeing are the only two manufacturers of large commercial airplanes, and the media have focused on ongoing trade disputes.
"Running communications for Airbus in Boeing's backyard during a time of international trade friction makes for an interesting job," McConnell says. "Media have look[ed] for a David vs. Goliath or good versus bad story. Both of us make very good planes. We have more in common than we have differences. It's [more like] Coke and Pepsi."
Boeing's director of media relations Tim Neale, who has known McConnell for 15 years, has only praise for him - and the A380.
"Our companies disagree, but Clay represents [Airbus] well," Neale says. "He is good at developing relationships and maintaining personal credibility. I respect his judgment and trust him.
"Developing an all-new plane is really hard." he adds. "There are always challenges. When you [see] your competitor in a rough time, you fully appreciate what they're going through. The A380 is a great accomplishment."
Barry Eccleston, president and CEO of Airbus Americas, calls McConnell "multitalented" and "the most professional communications person" he's worked with.
While McConnell "loves being a guy people can look to for an honest assessment," his primary role is "to convince our audience to act in ways that support Airbus' business goals, and to do it effectively, efficiently, and ethically."
The job requires counseling on US perspective on global issues, and McConnell likes counseling and collaboration best. "Next is the continuation of the Airbus image recovery," he says. "The environmental story is going to be big. We have a good story to tell."
Airbus' Environmental Management System provides for a reduction of its environmental footprint throughout an aircraft's entire lifecycle. The A380 was developed under this system, though some reporters have questioned greenness based on math around passenger load.
Should challenges run out or if McConnell is no longer able to significantly contribute, he'll find a different job. That's not likely to happen anytime soon, however.
"Aviation touch[es] billions of people a day," he notes. "There's never a dull moment."
Airbus Americas, comms VP
Sept. 2000-May 2001
Delta Air Lines, director of corporate comms and customer services
August 1999-Sept. 2000
Delta, director of internal and external comms
October 1998-July 1999
Delta, GM of internal and external comms