Habib Fekih is widely known as the top Airbus top executive in the Middle East but few realise that as a young man he was a hair's breadth from becoming a professor of quantum mechanics.
In 1974in Paris, Mr Fekih, then 22, imagined himself teaching Heisenberg's renowned uncertainty principle - a mind-boggling concept to the common man but something he was keen to pursue.
But his father fell ill at that time and asked him not to travel to the US to continue his studies at the Texas A&M University. So Mr Fekih, who is Tunisian, instead went to Toulouse's acclaimed Institut Nationale Superieure de l'Aeronautique et de l'Espace, or Supaero, to study aerospace.
"It was a tough decision because I'm very fond of quantum mechanics," Mr Fekih says. "But I quickly settled down at Supaero and basically substituted one passion for another."
Academia's loss was Airbus' gain as Mr Fekih has presided over a highly successful period for the European manufacturer.
In the past 25 years he has helped Airbus rise from fledgling status to break Boeing's monopoly and eventually sell more than US$100 billion (Dh367.29bn) worth of aircraft to the rapidly growing Middle East carriers, led by the long-haul specialists in the Gulf - Emirates Airline, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways.
Partly due to its successes in the Middle East, Airbus has sold and delivered more planes than Boeing worldwide during the past decade.
Airbus's bull run in the Middle East began in 2000, when Mr Fekih made a bold prediction.
It was a time when the European manufacturer was grappling with how to market its new A380 superjumbo jet.
"This was a very important moment in our lives," he recalls. "We had to decide how to market the aircraft and at what price. This was a strategic issue and I said, 'Guys, I am going to guarantee you I will sell this aircraft.'"
In February of that year, Mr Fekih forecast a sale of 10 to 12 superjumbos to Emirates Airline. Two months later, the prediction came true, with Emirates signing commitments for a dozen of the jets at a ceremony at the Crown Plaza hotel in Dubai.
Since then, the three big Gulf airlines, led by Emirates, have bought 105 of the extra-large jets, or 45 per cent of the global orderbook. They have also bought hundreds of other Airbus planes including shorter-range A320s and longer-range A330s, A340s and now, the under-development A350.
New sales from Arab carriers could also be agreed at the Paris Air Show this month in the suburb of Le Bourget in the French capital.
"It is no secret we are discussing with some airlines including Qatar Airways," he says. "But this year is also the Dubai Airshow [in November], so maybe for the region, Le Bourget comes a little bit early."
As the president of Airbus Middle East, Mr Fekih manages about 70 staff and personally oversees the big-ticket sales campaigns in his region, which often requires him to push Airbus for information to provide to prospective customers.
"During the A380 campaign with Emirates [Mr Fekih] had hundreds of people within Airbus he was dealing with, from engineering, production, operations and our commercial divisions," says Fouad Attar, the senior vice president of commercial operations at Airbus Middle East.
It is a part of the job few see from outside. Mr Fekih calls the work "double-selling": convincing the region's airlines to buy more aircraft, while at the same time convincing the Airbus leadership in France to factor the continued growth of the Gulf carriers into their global forecasts.
"You have to sell inside the company as well," he says.
Mr Fekih's predictions are included in Airbus' annual global market forecast. "If this vision is wrong, you will define a production plan which is wrong, so therefore we have to be quite precise," he says.
Small wonder, then, Mr Fekih's early working years were not in sales but in technical operations.
He followed his love of science - he still reads books on quantum mechanics - and specialised in avionics at Supaero. He then went to work at Tunisair in 1976 as a components overhaul director. Over the next decade he helped the airline to become an independent entity after years of leaning heavily on Air France for pilots and maintenance support.
"We were the first airline in the Arab world to do our own D [maintenance] check," says Mr Fekih. "This was a challenge to show a small airline from a small country could be self sufficient."
This "small airline from a small country" also helped to introduce a major innovation for the airline industry: reducing flight deck crews from three to two on wide-bodied jets, a big saving on costs.
"Airlines were conservative and not keen to do it because it was seen as perhaps dangerous," Mr Fekih says.
But Tunisair worked with Airbus to eliminate a position for a flight engineer, beating out the likes of established players such as Swissair, Lufthansa and United Airlines to fly the "forward-facing crew cockpit", now standard in the industry. "These were exciting years and we did a lot of good things for the company," he says.
After several promotions during 10 years at Tunisair that saw him promoted to vice president, Mr Fekih began to feel further personal growth would have to take place outside the company.
He started exploring opportunities with aerospace companies and airlines including Air France, Dassault and Honeywell, before he joined Airbus back in Toulouse, the city where he first studied aerospace years earlier.
He has been with the company ever since, save for a five-year stint with an Airbus subsidiary.
Through a period of internal chaos in 2006, when Airbus switched its chief executive three times, its A380 faced a two-year production delay and Airbus was also forced to send its A350 aircraft programme back to the drawing board, but Mr Fekih presided over a period of calm at the company's Dubai headquarters, says Mr Attar.
"We showed the customer that we were completely calm and confident." This included flying Middle East airline executives to Toulouse to show that the plans were on track, he said.
Switching effortlessly between English, Arabic and French on any given day, Mr Fekih says he loves the "human relations" aspect of working in the aviation.
"In my career I have met fantastic people, from the highest to lowest positions and from different races, religions and backgrounds. I feel at home in Oklahoma City, likewise in Bangkok, or in Banjul, Gambia.
"Thanks to my job, I can say I am a citizen of the world."