Cobham Relinquishes Conversion Work on UK Airbus Tanker
Ten conversions of Airbus A330 airliners into Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) for the UK Royal Air Force (RAF), which were scheduled to be done by Cobham Aviation Services at Bournemouth Airport in the UK, have been switched to Airbus Military (AM) at Getafe, Madrid. Nearly half of the 675 workers at Bournemouth will lose their jobs because of the switch.
The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) said it was “disappointed” by the decision, which the two companies said had been mutually agreed. AM and Cobham are both members of the Airtanker consortium, which has contracted to provide 14 A330MRTTs–as well as full in-service operation, support and training–to the RAF under a $16 billion fee-for-service private finance initiative (PFI) contract. Cobham will continue to supply the hose-and-drogue, air-refueling equipment for the aircraft. The aircraft are named “Voyager” in RAF service, the program having previously been known as the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA).
After the first two Voyagers were converted at Getafe in 2009 and 2010, the third and fourth aircraft were flown directly from the A330 production line to Bournemouth in September last year. Cobham appears to have seriously under-estimated the conversion task and therefore jeopardized the delivery schedule that Airtanker agreed with the MoD.
The RAF wants to retire its aging VC-10 and Tristar tanker-transports next year. But the service did not accept its first Voyager–this being the second aircraft that was converted at Getafe–until April this year, six months behind schedule. The FSTA PFI contract was signed in March 2008, and calls for at least nine fully-qualified aircraft to be delivered by May 2014. The two aircraft currently at Bournemouth won’t be delivered for at least another six months.
The RAF’s first Voyager is being used for crew training, transport and aeromedical airlift flights only. During refueling trials of the first Voyager with an RAF Tornado GR.4 last year “issues emerged on the stability of the hose, and fuel leakage,” the MoD said. Airtanker consortium officials told AIN this week that those issues are nearly resolved.
Another hiccup in the project was revealed last year, when the MoD asked Airtanker for a study on how the Voyager might be better protected from surface-to-air attack. The aircraft are fitted with a defensive aids subsystem (DASS) per the contract, but not with flight deck armor or fuel tank inerting. The UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) told Parliament in 2010 that the original FSTA requirement “did not envisage the aircraft flying directly into high-threat environments, such as Afghanistan” and that the enhanced-protection measures would likely cost “several hundred million pounds.”
The NAO was very critical of the PFI method for contracting the FSTA, noting that 80 percent of the annual average $585 million fee that Airtanker will receive over the next 24 years for the contracted baseline service is for financing, capital cost and profit. However, the MoD did avoid paying up front to develop the FSTA capability; the Airtanker consortium did not receive its first payment until the first aircraft was accepted, and forthcoming payments are also tied to progress in delivering the capability. Airtanker has already built a two-bay maintenance hangar at RAF Brize Norton and is due to commission the Voyager simulator next October.