In The 90s Chinese Airlines Bought Boeing Because They Thought Airbus Sold Buses

There are great stories – some of them apocryphal – about product names and marketing slogans that don’t work when translated into another language. Many are so good I badly want them to be true.

  • Pepsi’s “Come Alive! You’re In The Pepsi Generation” was mistranslated in China as Pepsi will bring your dead ancestors back to life.

  • Chevy Nova is said not to have worked to sell cars in Spanish because “no va” means doesn’t go. (Sadly false)

  • Purdue Chicken’s “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” became it takes a virile man to make a chicken affectionate in Spanish.

Apparently Airbus really did have a problem with its name when selling planes in China in the 1990s. An anecdote in Scott Hamilton’s new Air Wars: The Global Combat Between Airbus and Boeing explains,

In the early 1990s, Airbus had a recognition problem in China, depsite having sold a few A300s and A310s there. And there was the lost-in-translation issue. Leahy recalls an early meeting with one of the major Chinese airlines. Meetings were in large rooms with charis set around the wall. The Chinese had a translator and so did the visitors. Meetings broke up precisely on the allotted time.

Leahy and his team explained the structure of Airbus and discussed the Airbus forecast for Chinese aviation. When the meeting ended in exactly 60 minutes, the Chinese airline chairman, through the translator, thanked Leahy for his visit, but said they wouldn’t need his product. You see, Leahy was told, the airline was installing jetways and no longer needed buses to move passengers.

At least the A320 narrowbody wasn’t named the Airbus Nova.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Funny story; however, look at the great leap economically and militarily the PRC has made since those meetings.

    What should have been concern, but overlooked in America’s naïveté towards the PRC was allowing Boeing to build an aircraft factory in Communist China. How soon will they start re-engineering Boeing jets and selling to our enemies, e.g., Iran?

  2. @Mark – There’s no real threat to Iran having newer commercial planes. If anything, the people of Iran would benefit from having safer planes.

    The reason we place trade restrictions on Iran is an attempt to pressure the larger political system in Iran into changing.

    I tend to think such sanctions do apply a modest amount of pressure, enough to have encouraged Iran to partake in the 2015 nuclear agreement, for example, but not enough to force regime change or enormous policy differences. So while not ideal, it’s not a huge problem if Iran is able to pick up some more modern planes based on a Boeing design.

    Unless, of course, I misunderstood and Boeing has a modern fighter jet factory in China. I don’t expect that’s the case.

  3. The People’s Republic of China is not stupid. They pressured Airbus, Boeing, and McDonnell Douglas to build planes there if they wanted to sell. MDD caved in yet only a few MD-80 and -90 were built. Later, China used the same tooling to build the ARJ-21 which resembles the MD-80.

    Airbus also makes jets in China. Embraer did before but ERJ production has ended.

  4. A bit like when Turkey banned Dole pineapples because Senator Bob Dole talked about the 1915 Armenian genocide,

  5. @jamesb2147

    Bad enough to provide Red China the technology easily re-engineered for military purposes. But a horrible decision when realizing how the PRC could benefit Iran. Neither we nor our allies, or, any trading partner, needs to sell or buy anything to/from Iran.

    Not all of us sing Kumbuyah and think if we were only nicer, others would be too, disregarding how many U.S. service people were murdered by Iran in Iraq.

    At least George HW Bush stopped McDonnell Douglas from selling itself to the PRC, including its blueprints.

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