Eurocopter dominates civil helo market

 - March 28, 2007, 6:35 AM

Eurocopter’s new boss believes that last year’s good sales figures should not hide
the need for some changes in the company culture. Speaking to the press in Paris
on January 21, president and CEO Fabrice Brégier, 42, said the helicopter manufacturer’s customer service still needs improvement. However, “Eurocopter is now in working order, according to the new frame I have defined,” he stated.

Brégier said many efforts should go to adopting a “proactive customer culture.” He admitted that Eurocopter’s customer service was one of the “less strong” aspects at the Marignane, Provence-based German-French-Spanish firm. He also hinted at necessary changes in supplier relationships: “We have to make them more efficient.”

Eurocopter’s net orders last year reached 293 new helicopters, split nearly 50-50 between civil/parapublic and military applications and worth €1.4 billion (approximately $1.75 billion). In the €2.57 billion ($3.2 billion) total orders, customer services account for €0.97 million ($1.2 billion).

“The helicopter market is the combination of a number of niche markets; this explains its resistance to the lagging world economy,” Brégier said, judging that last year was a good one for the company. However, the second half of the year compensated for a difficult early 2003. Although last year had better than expected growth (reflected in a 4-percent growth in revenue, to €2.61 billion or $3.26 billion), Brégier acknowledged that the weak dollar had an effect.

The company is now trying to limit the risks linked to exchange rates. Eurocopter’s new purchase policy will favor buying in dollars or dollar-related currencies. Today, on the one hand, most costs are in Euros. On the other hand, one third of civil revenues are in dollars. “We are trying to buy as much as we sell in dollars,” Brégier explained.
He declined to give a figure for last year’s financial results, which he deferred to parent company EADS. However, he conceded that last year’s profit margin had surged by 20 percent over 2002. Brégier hopes to continue on the same trend for both revenues (up 10 percent) and margins this year. The backlog is valued at €8.6 billion ($10.75 billion). Deliveries totaled 297 aircraft last year.

Eurocopter claims 45 percent of the world market by number and 25 percent by value, which translates to the top position among helicopter manufacturers. In the civil and parapublic market, Brégier claimed a 53-percent market share by value. In the U.S. alone, this share is 48 percent, he said. He pointed out that the situation in the U.S. is “business as usual” again, after the diplomatic blow early last year due to the war in Iraq (the company is mainly French-German). Since then Eurocopter has gained some Spanish blood, as EADS Casa now holds 5 percent of the firm’s shares.

In the five-seat, single-engine helicopter market, the EC 120 has taken an 80-percent market share, Brégier noted. At the new production facility in Brisbane, Australia, the first two EC 120s assembled Down Under were rolled out last year.

Global Partnerships

A major event last year was the signing of a partnership agreement that will open
the door to the production of EC 120s at China’s Harbin Aircraft. The Chinese market is estimated at 200 aircraft over the next five to six years. The required investment
for the factory will be provided entirely by Harbin Aircraft. “But we are still in charge of marketing, services and training,” Brégier pointed out. The first Chinese EC 120s are scheduled to be rolled out this year, while the production facility is pegged to be fully operational by year-end.

In Romania, after a slow start, the EC 135 assembly line has begun operations. Three of the twins were delivered to the Ministry of Interior last year.
Another slow start has been that of the EC 145. “Teething problems have been solved and we have successfully marketed the EC 145 to the U.S. emergency medical service market,” Brégier said. The Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., placed an order for three EC 145s last year.

But the real achievement last year for the EC 145 was that of a French Gendarmerie (one of the French police forces) crew of five. They landed at the top of Mont Blanc, at an altitude of 15,770 feet, with an EC 145 carrying a full payload. Furthermore the temperature was ISA+16, making conditions even more difficult.

Regarding the EC 155, Brégier confirmed that a re-engined version of the Dolphin is being offered to the U.S. Coast Guard. It features two Turbomeca Arriel 2C2 engines with twin-channel FADEC and has been successfully tested, Brégier reported. “Our factory in Columbus, Mississippi, will be the place for the retrofit if the Coast Guard places an order,” he noted. American Eurocopter will also assemble most NH90s that Eurocopter and its partners AgustaWestland and Fokker hope to sell to the U.S. parapublic market. The NH90 is pegged to get its first military qualification and civil certification this year.

The EC 225 program is suffering another delay. In late January, program director Bernard Fujarski told AIN that EASA certification of the new variant of the Super Puma is now pegged for late May. Last summer, Eurocopter was still talking about early 2004 certification.

The EC 225’s military sister, the EC 725, should get qualification from the French defense authorities shortly after civil certification. Deliveries to the French Air Force are now slated to begin in September instead of this month. Civil deliveries are planned to begin in October. The first EC 225 will go to UK North Sea operator CHC Scotia.

The optional de-icing system is currently undergoing flight tests for certification in the first quarter of next year. Simultaneously, Eurocopter has applied for FAA certification of the EC 225. “Our target is mid-2005,” Fujarski said.