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Nothing Toulouse

How did the fourth-largest city in France become the aviation capital of Europe?

March 14, 2005

How did the fourth-largest city in France become the aviation capital of Europe?

In January 2005, Toulouse-based Airbus welcomed the German, French, Spanish and British heads of state along with 5,000 other guests to celebrate the unveiling of the largest passenger aircraft in the world, the Airbus A380.

Why is Airbus — Boeing's global competitor — based in Toulouse? A key part of the explanation is that Toulouse has a long history of aviation.

It all began in 1917, when the French government installed the aeronautics firm, Latécoère, here in southwestern France. Far away from everything, Toulouse proved to be strategically ideal for the French aviation industry.

After World War II, Toulouse continued to be a privileged spot for aviation — and later, aerospace — research. Gradually, Toulouse became a hub of aviation for Europe as well, when Airbus established its headquarters here in 1974.

Despite its scientific and technological infrastructure, Toulouse has preserved its regional capital feel. When I first arrived in Toulouse as a student in 1999, Toulouse really felt like a small town.

It was tucked away in the Midi-Pyrenees region, closer to Barcelona than to Paris. It was not easily accessible by train, surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards to the North and to the East — and bordered by the imposing Pyrenees Mountains to the South and to the West.

I was charmed by the dilapidated buildings of downtown, the windy, cobblestone streets, the dark and smoky Spanish-style "bodegas" and rugby.

And then there was the beautiful Canal du Midi, a 17th-century canal that stretches from Béziers, on the Mediterranean coast, to Toulouse, connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via the Garonne river.

I reveled in Toulouse's beautiful redbrick architecture, warm, summer sunshine, cassoulet, foie gras and the occasional rugby game.

After all, far from the hustle and bustle of Paris, Toulouse seemed like a world apart.

A carefree student, I was not even aware that Airbus was headquartered in Toulouse. To me, Toulouse seemed far away from anything that had to do with European industry.

And yet, despite Toulouse's image as a sleepy, regional center, things began to change. Toulouse was making headlines in the French press as a great place to live, a good alternative to fast-paced life in the French capital. Already the fourth-largest city in France, it was also one of the fastest growing.

And in December 1999, a U.S. Consulate opened just a few streets from where I lived — foreshadowing, perhaps, that the city was about to take make its move on the global economic map.

But what really pushed Toulouse ahead was the announcement in December 2000 that Airbus would build the "A3XX", the largest commercial airplane in the history of civil aviation.

Designed to accommodate a whopping 555 passengers, Airbus's "A3XX" (later to be called the A380) would be assembled near Airbus headquarters. Suddenly, Toulouse was in the news.

I was living in the United States at the time — and followed the stories in the press with surprise and wonder. I heard that Jean-Luc Lagardère plant, where the "A3XX" would be assembled, was being built on the Aéroconstellation industrial site, just northeast of Toulouse's Blagnac airport.

The plant, hailed as "a cathedral built around the airplane" by then Airbus CEO, Noël Forgeard, would be 490 meters long, 250 meters wide and 46 meters high.

The Jean-Luc Lagardère plant, the biggest "factory" in Europe — is located just outside sleepy, southwestern Toulouse.

I could hardly believe it. Articles chronicled what seemed to be a logistics nightmare of getting the airplane parts from one of Airbus's 16 European manufacturing plants to Toulouse.

The A380 fuselage comes in from Hamburg and the wings from Bristol. The enormous belly and tail sections arrive from Cadiz. Parts also come in from plants in the United States and Australia.

Highways in the rural southwestern region between Toulouse and Bordeaux have been widened to accommodate delivery of the various components of the A380.

After living in the United States for five years — and following the Toulouse/A380 story from abroad with interest — I moved back to Toulouse in 2004.

Toulouse's population had visibly exploded. Toulouse now has 427,000 inhabitants. According to the mayor's office, Toulouse's population has increased by 30% over the past five years.

That is the fastest growth rate of any French city — translating to nearly 1,000 new residents each month. The increase in population spurred the construction of the city's second metro line, slated to open in late 2006/early 2007.

The city is dramatically cleaner. Graffiti on the walls of downtown streets has been painted over — and many downtown buildings have been renovated.

The number of sophisticated nightspots has increased as well.

Several fancy, new wine bars have moved in and chefs from Paris now run some of the city's restaurants, adding new flair to Southwestern cuisine and upgrading the ambiance. Toulouse has also become an easy travel destination.

EasyJet, for example, offers a low cost route between Toulouse and London's Gatwick airport as well as direct flights to Toulouse from Paris-Orly.

This has not only aided tourism, but also increased business connections. I was recently on an early morning weekday flight from London to Toulouse.

While the flight was not full, the majority of the passengers were obviously aeronautical engineers traveling to Toulouse on business.

Toulouse has taken off — thanks largely to the aviation industry. Most of the changes in Toulouse run parallel to Airbus's plan to build the A380.

The project promised to create 2,000 jobs in Toulouse by 2008 —and has attracted engineers and business people from London, Hamburg, Madrid and elsewhere.

Against the backdrop of European aeronautics, Toulouse has become a thriving city. Thanks largely to the aviation industry, Toulouse has taken off.

And with the A380 test flight scheduled to take place in Toulouse in May 2005 and the newly announced plans for a long haul passenger jet in the making, chances are Toulouse — and Airbus — are going to be in the headlines for a while.