The king of Saudi Arabia wanted the United States to outfit his personal jet with the same high-tech devices as Air Force One. The president of Turkey wanted the Obama administration to let a Turkish astronaut sit in on a NASA space flight. And in Bangladesh, the prime minister pressed the State Department to re-establish landing rights at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Each of these government leaders had one thing in common: they were trying to decide whether to buy billions of dollars’ worth of commercial jets from Boeing or its European competitor, Airbus. And United States diplomats were acting like marketing agents, offering deals to heads of state and airline executives whose decisions could be influenced by price, performance and, as with all finicky customers with plenty to spend, perks.
This is the high-stakes, international trading bazaar for large commercial jets, where tens of billions of dollars are on the line, along with hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs. At its heart, it is a global wrestling match fought every day by executives at two giant companies, Boeing and Airbus, in which each controls about half of the global market for such planes.
To a greater degree than previously known, diplomats are a big part of the sales force, according to hundreds of cables released by WikiLeaks, which describe politicking and cajoling at the highest levels.
It is not surprising that the United States helps American companies doing business abroad, given that each sale is worth thousands of jobs and that their foreign competitors do the same. But like the other WikiLeaks cables, these offer a remarkably detailed look at what had previously been only glimpsed — in this case, the sales war between American diplomats and their European counterparts.
The cables describe letters from presidents, state visits as bargaining chits and a number of world leaders making big purchases based, at least in part, on how much the companies are willing to dress up private planes.
The documents also suggest that demands for bribes, or at least payment to suspicious intermediaries who offer to serve as “agents,” still take place. Boeing says it is committed to avoiding any such corrupt practices.
State Department and Boeing officials, in interviews last month, acknowledged the important role the United States government plays in helping them sell commercial airplanes, despite a trade agreement signed by the United States and European leaders three decades ago intended to remove international politics from the process.