By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Allan McArtor, who heads Airbus U.S. commercial operations, will take over as chairman and chief executive of the overall U.S. unit of the European weapons and planemaker on March 1, replacing Sean O'Keefe, the company said Tuesday.
O'Keefe, who turns 58 later this month, told Reuters he is resigning to focus on "a more aggressive rehabilitation regime" after he survived a 2010 plane crash in Alaska that killed five people, including former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.
O'Keefe, a former Navy Secretary, NASA administrator and Pentagon comptroller, said he made the decision with "great reluctance" after doctors told him that he needed six to eight weeks to recuperate from a recent back surgery, followed by several days a week of intense physical therapy.
He will remain on special assignment with the company to oversee changes in the company's special security agreement with the Pentagon after a corporate restructuring.
McArtor, a decorated Vietnam war combat pilot who later flew with the Air Force's Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team, has headed Airbus' commercial operations in the United States since 2001. He also served as head of the Federal Aviation Administration from 1987 to 1989 and held senior roles at Federal Express from 1979 to 1994.
At Airbus, McArtor played a key role in the company's ultimately unsuccessful bid to land a multibillion U.S. Air Force refueling plane contract, and later, in establishing an assembly line for the Airbus A320 in Alabama.
Airbus Group Chief Executive Tom Enders said McArtor had been a key member of the Airbus Americas senior leadership team for 13 years, leading the unit through a period of significant growth and expansion.
"With his aviation-rich biography, Allan will give us tremendous lift and thrust in the U.S.," Enders said, adding that McArtor's previous government and private sector experience would be an invaluable asset to the Airbus Group.
Before joining Airbus, McArtor was founder, chairman and CEO of Legend Airlines, a regional airline based at Dallas Love Field. He continues to hold a commercial pilot's license.
O'Keefe was named chief executive of EADS North America in November 2009, adding the responsibilities of chairman of the unit's board in January 2011. The company was renamed Airbus Group Inc, effective Jan. 1.
O'Keefe said McArtor's appointment did not signal any retreat from the company's commitment to expanding its U.S. defense and space business, although he said Airbus would focus heavily on its internal reorganization over the coming year.
Enders said O'Keefe made significant contributions during his tenure as CEO of EADS North America, including "leading the company during the tanker replacement competition, increasing our reputation with the U.S. government and expanding our market presence in North America."
O'Keefe and his son Kevin were among four people who survived the small plane crash in a remote part of Alaska that killed Stevens and four other people in August 2010.
O'Keefe returned to work two and a half months after the crash, still sporting a neck brace and protective cast on his foot. He has struggled with lingering effects from the serious injuries he sustained in the accident.
"One of the things I learned three years ago is that every day is a bonus, and you have an obligation to do your best with it," O'Keefe told Reuters in a telephone interview. "This is a case where it just isn't fair to my colleagues and the company ... if I can't every day do my best at it."