By Tim Hepher
PARIS (Reuters) - Airbus sales chief John Leahy, a dominant figure of modern aviation, has resolved one of the most widely discussed questions in the aerospace sector by settling on a retirement date - the end of 2017, company executives said on Wednesday.
His long-rumoured departure leaves a record backlog of orders for Europe's main aerospace group but uncertainty over short-term demand, as airlines relax after bingeing on new jets.
The 67-year-old New Yorker said earlier this year he would retire soon to make way for his deputy Kiran Rao and hinted the handover would happen in the autumn by telling reporters he had no plans to attend the Nov 12-16 Dubai Airshow.
But he kept aviation markets guessing over the timing of his plans and is now aiming for one last coup as Airbus faces an aggressive new sales drive from U.S. rival Boeing (BA.N).
The executives said Leahy had agreed to stay on until the end of December. That comes as Airbus tries to end a hiatus in sales of the A380 by seeking more orders from Emirates at the Dubai Airshow, which Leahy is now expected to attend after all.
Chief Executive Tom Enders disclosed the timing of Leahy's departure during a recent internal sales meeting but has not publicly confirmed details of the transition.
Airbus declined to comment. Leahy could not be reached.
RELENTLESS 'DEAL CLOSER'
Leahy, seen as a relentless 'deal closer', sold small Piper aircraft before joining Airbus to help break open the U.S. market in the 1980s. He has been in the top sales post since 1994.
Aides say he has overseen sales during that time of more than 15,500 aircraft worth $1.7 trillion (1.29 trillion pounds) at list prices - a record which almost certainly makes him the most successful sales manager by value of goods sold in industrial history.
But after a prolonged aerospace boom, Airbus has slipped behind Boeing in the order race this year.
After suffering a rare air show defeat at the Paris Airshow in June, Leahy seems determined to end his career on a high note and has set his sights on new sales for the A380, without which the plane could struggle to survive, industry sources said.
Emirates president Tim Clark, who has forged deals worth tens of billions of dollars with Leahy, declined to say whether he would agree more deals in time for the Dubai Airshow but joked about feeling the full force of Leahy's negotiating style.
"He's anxious that we should order a squillion A380s before he goes, so that he’ll go out with a fanfare of trumpets or whatever," he told Reuters in Asia.
"But he's been telling me for the last four years that he'll retire in the next year, so I’ll believe it when I see it," added Clark.
Clark paid tribute to Leahy's record and declined to comment on his own retirement plans.
"He’s been very good at what he is doing. He's certainly a character who has been a big contributor to the industry."
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta)