Socata weighs jump into air taxi class

 - May 17, 2008, 3:39 AM

EADS Socata, in a bid to enter the growing small corporate flight department and air taxi market, is evaluating the case for developing a new turboprop or business jet that would be bigger than its six-seat TBM 850 but would not replace it. The French company is seeking financial and/or industrial partnerships for the $390 million project. It expects to make a decision on the new aircraft by early 2009 and fly it within five years.

So far this year, Socata (Booth No. 314) has achieved a record 63 sales of the TBM 850. The so-called “very fast turboprop” features an updated cockpit (see below) and is certain to take all of the manufacturer’s allocated production capacity for this year. According to Socata, the TBM 850 is the world’s fastest single-engine turboprop, with a 320-ktas maximum cruise speed at Flight Level 260 (in ISA conditions).

The company unveiled a new paint scheme for the TBM 850 at the Sun ‘n’ Fly-in in Lakeland, Florida last month, along with a new logo to give a distinctive identity to the 2008 version of the aircraft.

The first two of the new model were delivered recently from the manufacturer’s plant in Tarbes, southwest France, to customers in Florida, bringing sales to more than 150 copies since the aircraft was launched in December 2005. Most have gone to the U.S., with 20 percent to Europe and just 10 percent to South America and the Asia Pacific region.

Socata chairman and CEO Jean-Michel Léonard told EBACE Convention News that while the TBM 850 program has been a success, the company feels it has the capability, market expertise and credibility to produce a faster and longer range aircraft. “We are evaluating the possibility of launching another product, which would not replace the 850 but complement it in terms of capacity, that is, with at least two more seats,” he said. “This is why we are considering both turboprop and jet engines.”

Léonard said that despite the unfavorable exchange rate between the dollar and the euro, the TBM sells well and has intrinsic advantages including fuel burn and the ability to take off and land where jets cannot. However, he added that, rightly or wrongly, turbofan-powered aircraft generally have a better image than turboprops and that in some countries the future market will favor jets–especially with the recent arrival of the first of the new very light jets, with which the TBM 850 now has to compete directly.

However, Socata is still evaluating both types of powerplants. Pratt & Whitney Canada, which supplies the TBM 850’s PT6A-66D turboprop engine, also manufactures turbofans and would be an obvious prospective partner should the airframer launch a new light jet.

“The new aircraft would give the current customer base a bigger, faster, longer range model. We also intend to enter small corporate and taxi-based market that today is a very limited one for Socata,” said Léonard.

The manufacturer, aided by parent group EADS, is seeking a financial and/or industrial partnership either with existing aircraft manufacturers or with a company that is not currently building aircraft. Socata’s plan is to spend the rest of this year evaluating the business case for the new aircraft and to select a partner that would “not necessarily” be European. The U.S., Léonard said, is “pivotal for general aviation and is definitely one of the avenues we are considering.” He said Socata will make a decision as to whether to launch the new program around the beginning of 2009.

The TBM 850’s new cabin interior, redesigned by the Catherineau Design Co., is two inches wider and one inch higher than the previous interior. Cockpit and passenger cabin changes reduce airframe weight, increasing the 850’s useful load by 110 pounds. Its fuel tank capacity gains 11 gallons and range is up almost 10 percent–to 1,410 nm from 1,300 nm with a full tank at the maximum recommended cruise speed. The TBM’s environmental control system has been replaced by a “global air system” that offers a dual-zone temperature control.

The company delivered a record 46 aircraft in 2007, including the first copies sold to Russia and Bulgaria, and it has already sold the 63 aircraft earmarked for production this year. The price for delivery in 2009, when Socata expects to produce 70 aircraft, is just over $3 million for an average-equipped TBM 850. Significantly, this price is almost identical to that for Embraer’s new Phenom 100 very light jet, which will enter service later this year.