Thales out to prove it's a worthy competitor

 - January 24, 2007, 5:24 AM

In a shift from its traditional role serving the airlines, Thales is preparing to expand its presence in North America this year with a line of avionics products for business jets. But before the manufacturer fully commits to the endeavor, it is putting extra emphasis on product support, an area that has caused headaches for the manufacturer–and its customers–in the past.

“Our vision is to become a major systems integrator and player in the business jet segment,” said Ed Senen, vice president of marketing and sales for Thales’ North American operation. But he conceded that the company must do a better job of providing support for operators to be successful. “We have made great strides with our air transport customers and we plan to bring that same level of support to the business jet segment.”

Thales’ Western Hemisphere product support center is located in Edison, N.J. Equipment repairs for business jet customers are made at this complex, which employs about 200 workers and includes roughly 65,000 sq ft of space. Thales is preparing to open a new facility nearby in 2009 to accommodate anticipated growth, Senen said, predicting that the company will add another 220 workers in Edison before then.

Thales until now has focused primarily on the airline market, with a successful line of avionics and IFE products for its large OEM customers. The company recently christened a new 65,000-sq-ft product-support center in Seattle, taking over a former Boeing building in a deal that included first rights of refusal on an extra 100,000 sq ft of space there. The site houses 140 employees (up from the 75 who had been based in Seattle previously), servicing cockpit avionics and IFE products for major and regional airlines operating mainly Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier equipment. The Seattle operation also handles avionics repairs for Thales’ helicopter customers.

Product-support Progress
Thales’ move into business aviation represents a significant potential area for growth, but it also poses challenges, Senen conceded. To be able to build a business in a segment dominated by a number of well established competitors, quality customer support is a prerequisite, he said. “As we seek to expand into this segment, we know that being organized in advance with a world-class support organization is vital to success,” he said. “We understand that, we’ve counted the cost of that, and that’s inherent in our plan to penetrate this market in a more aggressive way than we have in the past.”

Senen and his team certainly have their work cut out for them. Thales finished near the bottom of AIN’s most recent avionics product-support survey (October 2006, page 68), winding up in last place in overall product reliability and in a tie for the bottom spot in the cost-of-parts category. Some of the problem rests in the fact that Thales hasn’t put much of its focus on the business aviation segment until now. The company will face an uphill battle in the months and years ahead trying to change its public perception from a European company that supplies products primarily to Airbus to a global presence that can go toe to toe with the likes of Rockwell Collins and Honeywell, which have huge head starts on the product-support front.

Apparently, Thales’ efforts to provide better support are beginning to pay off. At the Seattle site’s grand opening in November, officials for Airbus and Bombardier said the company has made notable progress in a short period of time. “Support from Thales in the past was not always very good,” confided one Airbus executive at the event. “Now, it is much, much better. We’re happy to have them as a partner. That wasn’t always the case.”

In business aviation, Thales supplies the flight control system on the Global Express and acted as the integrator for a variety of other systems on the airplane. For example, the company supplies the Global’s head-up display and performed the integration of its infrared enhanced-vision system. Thales’ integrated standby display is an option on new Gulfstreams, and some of its older electromechanical equipment flies on Falcons.

Headquartered in France, the company is trying to entice other business jet OEMs to add the LCD standby product to their optional-equipment lists, Senen said. The plan is to expand this display offering into a more fully integrated display suite for the retrofit market through a dealer and installation center network. “That’s a major activity for us to begin to really make progress on in 2007,” Senen said, adding that official product announcements likely will be made in the fall at the NBAA Convention in Atlanta. When the product line arrives, he promised, Thales will be ready with industry-leading support.