Dassault and Honeywell face off in lawsuit

 - October 24, 2006, 11:51 AM

In an unusual public airing of a disagreement between a customer and supplier, Dassault Aviation has filed a lawsuit seeking more than $60 million from Honeywell over delays with the integrated avionics systems in the Falcon 900EX and 2000EX.

In the lawsuit, Dassault claims that Honeywell officials repeatedly assured the French business jet builder that the basic functionality of the Primus Epic avionics platform on which Dassault’s EASy cockpit is based was essentially ready when in fact it still needed years of development. As a result, Dassault contends that production and certification postponements of ts EX models damaged its reputation for delivering airplanes on time.

The 900EX was the first Falcon certified with the EASy flight deck, in December 2003. Dassault claims that Honeywell was months behind in delivering hardware, leading to a nearly three-year delay in obtaining certification for the model. Meanwhile, the EASy cockpit for the Falcon 2000EX still is not completely finished, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesman for Dassault declined to comment on the suit, saying the manufacturer wants to avoid trying “the case in the press.” A Honeywell spokesman said discussions about the matter with Dassault are under way, indicating that the two parties could perhaps reach a settlement before the suit goes to trial.

The unusual story of how one of the world’s oldest and most successful business aircraft manufacturers found itself in the unenviable position of filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against one of its most important suppliers highlights the tumultuous history of the Primus Epic avionics platform, which emerged amid great fanfare in 1996 only to spend the next several years mired by program delays and technical difficulties.

The issues apparently caused some amount of pain for a number of Honeywell’s biggest customers, although Honeywell last month contended that at least some of the blame for Primus Epic delays belonged to the customers themselves.

Primus Epic has been selected by ulfstream for the G550 and G450; Agusta for the AB139 helicopter; Embraer for the 170/175 and 190/195 regional jets; Dassault for the Falcon 900EX, 2000EX and 7X; Cessna for the Sovereign; and Raytheon Aircraft for the Hawker 4000.

The Honeywell spokesman said delays for most of these programs were caused at least in part by an eagerness on the part of customers to continue adding functionality to the baseline system even after Honeywell warned them that it would move certification target dates further to the right.

In addition to agreeing to a brief telephone interview, Honeywell responded to a number of written questions presented by AIN that expand on precisely what, in the avionics maker’s view, led to the setbacks for the Primus Epic program. At the heart of matter is the assertion that aircraft manufacturers were willing to accept delays if it meant a better, more advanced flight deck for their aircraft, Honeywell wrote.

“After Primus Epic was launched in the mid-1990s, it became clear that each aircraft manufacturer wanted to customize Primus Epic for its specific aircraft so hat [the avionics] would serve as a differentiator in the marketplace,” Honeywell explained. As customers asked for more functionality to be added to the baseline version of Primus Epic, Honeywell had trouble staying on schedule, despite the fact that the flexibility and “open architecture” of the avionics suite were key selling points.

In its written responses, Honeywell stated that “most of the OEMs with which Honeywell partnered on the development of each new application of Primus Epic wanted to expand that application’s capability as it was being developed.” Honeywell went on to state that “platform customization and evolving certification processes” led to inevitable delays, and several concurrent certification programs in a variety of countries exacerbated the situation. In closing, Honeywell said that manufacturers were “advised of schedule impacts as part of on-going program reviews” and for the most part accepted the delays.

Dassault claims that the real cause of Primus Epic setbacks was a shortage of qualified personnel employed by Honeywell. In the lawsuit, Dassault contends that at one point Honeywell even requested that Dassault “loan” dozens of engineers to Honeywell to assist with EASy software coding. Dassault went on to claim that “so-called production shipsets” of Primus Epic hardware arrived late, were n poor condition and did not meet agreed-to specifications.

The Agony of Success

Dassault’s public swipe at Honeywell isn’t the first occasion on which Primus Epic has been the subject of negative publicity. Major signs of trouble for the program surfaced at the 2003 Paris Air Show, when Embraer CEO Mauricio Botelho told reporters during a press conference that U.S. type certification of the Embraer 170 regional jet would be delayed by several months because of difficulties integrating the airplane’s fly-by-wire flight control system with Primus Epic software. It was around that time that other manufacturers, including Dassault, Cessna, Raytheon and Gulfstream, also began talking publicly about Primus Epic delays.

Realizing that it faced a potentially serious public relations crisis, Honeywell at that time sought to explain the reasons behind the delays by implying that the company was a victim of its own success. While accepting much of the responsibility for the schedule slippages, Honeywell in mid-2003 said Primus Epic was requiring “unprecedented” levels of integration between aircraft systems and avionics at a time when needed engineering talent as difficult to bring on board because of a hot market for business jets.

Problems Intensify

In a page one story that appeared in the August 2003 issue of AIN, a Honeywell spokeswoman said the avionics maker was working closely with customers to dull the impact of program delays. The aviation industry had been in “steep growth mode,” she said, and it was difficult for Honeywell to find engineers with the expertise necessary to shepherd Primus Epic through what turned out to be no fewer than six concurrent certification programs.

“So we got behind,” she explained. “And as people here got behind, flight testing got behind. It is unfortunately a reality of aircraft certification. We spent a lot of time working with our customers on the fact that we were having difficulties finding experienced resources during the market growth period and that this was causing a bubble of work that we had to manage.”

Dassault’s take on the situation at hat time was somewhat different. Faced with certification schedule slippages of the EASy-equipped Falcon 900EX, Dassault put the blame for delays squarely on Honeywell’s failure to fix EASy software problems.

“Current delays in getting EASy certified are due to longer-than-expected integration by Honeywell of our software into Primus Epic,” said Jean-François Georges, Dassault senior vice president for civil aircraft. “Some bugs can still be found today, and we need to get rid of all of them before entry into service.”

The terse comments by Dassault and Embraer in 2003, coupled with off-the-record assertions from other aircraft manufacturers about mounting delays, painted a stark picture of airplane builders having to explain delivery delays to buyers and a supplier desperately struggling to put its most important avionics program back on track.

Fast-forward to earlier this year and by all accounts the situation for Honeywell had not improved. In fact, the difficulties swirling around the Primus Epic program grew worse, despite the fact that 12 aircraft types have been certified with Primus Epic and more than 380 airplanes today are flying with the system.

The problems were highlighted by an FAA airworthiness directive this past spring calling for immediate checks of the avionics communications buses in the system after it was determined that faults could lead to a near total shutdown of Primus Epic in flight, which the FAA said could cause the flight displays to go blank.

Shortly after the FAA issued its AD, Raytheon’s third quarter report alluded to additional delays in full certification of the Hawker 4000. The company blamed problems on an undisclosed avionics supplier, later said to be Honeywell.

But by far the biggest blow for Honeywell came with the filing of Dassault’s lawsuit on October 11 in federal district court in New York. In the suit, Dassault not only blames Honeywell for the delays, but it also accuses the company of lapses in basic quality-control and product-development practices.

The suit also contends that at one point Honeywell “unilaterally” decided–over the express objections of Dassault–to certify EASy in three successive “steps,” with an initial phase known as Step 1 containing only basic functionality, presumably to give Honeywell time to obtain the initial TSO approval for the system while developing add-on and enhanced features.

Dassault claims that the TSO, in fact, wasn’t issued until November 2003, almost a full year after the agreed-to deadline for certification. The final Step 3 certification, which Dassault said included “almost the total of all of the functionalities Honeywell originally agreed in September 1999 to deliver on a set schedule,” was finished in July of this year, almost three years late, according to the lawsuit. Falcon 2000EX customers who take delivery of their airplanes between now and the middle of next year will receive a Step 2 EASy cockpit, with upgrades to the full Step 3 version of the avionics likely occurring by the summer, Dassault said.

What happens from here is impossible to say, but considering Honeywell’s public statements that it is holding ongoing discussions with Dassault, it is reasonable to assume that the avionics maker is open to a settlement that might allow it to pay something far less than $60 million to put the matter behind both companies.

In a signal that the damage between the two is not irreparable, a spokeswoman for Dassault in France told AIN last month that Dassault and Honeywell will “continue to work together” on engines and avionics. Honeywell, in a statement issued to reporters, said it “looks forward to continuing our long and successful relationship.”

R. Randall Padfield in the U.S. and Thierry Dubois in France contributed to this article.