Dassault again downgrades its 2003 delivery estimate

 - October 8, 2007, 5:17 AM

A year after construction began, the new assembly facility for the long-range Dassault Falcon 7X is finished and has already started operations. Attendees at the inauguration on September 15 in Bordeaux, France, could see some 10 Falcon 2000 and 2000EX twinjets in the last stages of final assembly.

But the French manufacturer did not have only steps forward to talk about on that day. Chairman and CEO Charles Edelstenne said deliveries this year will be close to 40 aircraft, down from an anticipated 50 to 60, and only 20 aircraft had been delivered at press time.

The new $33 million factory is both on schedule and on cost, Edelstenne emphasized. The 208,000-sq-ft building’s 46-foot height– taller than other hangars on the site–will be able to accommodate the 7X’s 25-foot 6-inch tail. It will be able to house 14 of the $37 million aircraft at one time. Falcon 7X production will progressively replace the Falcon 2000 series, production of which was transferred to the new facility in late July. Since deliveries started in May, more than 10 Falcon 2000EXs have been delivered. Final assembly of the first Falcon 7X will begin in one year, Edelstenne noted.

The new facility was designed to optimize logistic flows. Next to the assembly hall but still inside the building are offices for the quality, preparation, logistics and production managers. During the early stages of the production phase, the new facility will adopt the concurrent engineering program Dassault set up in Saint-Cloud last year. Joint teams composed of staff from both Dassault and risk-sharing partners will work in these offices and on the production line.

Falcon 7X Schedule Changed

The building was named after Charles Lindbergh “as a tribute to the famous aviator who was instrumental in making the Falcon saga successful, and to America, a market that represents two-thirds of our sales,” Edelstenne said. It is the sixth facility at the Bordeaux Mérignac plant. All Dassault aircraft, both civil and military, are assembled here.

The Falcon 7X is scheduled to fly in spring 2005, followed by certification and first deliveries in “late 2006.” Olivier Villa, vice president of Falcon programs, explained that the development schedule has partly changed. “We are now planning on a longer ground-testing phase but a shorter flight-test program,” he told AIN. The reason for this adjustment is the total interconnection of the systems on new-generation aircraft. “Notably, fly-by-wire controls are [fully integrated with] the EASy flight deck,” Villa said. This makes development more complex than that of the Falcon 900 some 20 years ago. “As flight testing is a very expensive phase in the development, everything we can do earlier will be done before the 7X takes to the air,” Villa noted. Ground testing, henceforth a critical phase, will begin late next year. Upon certification two years later some 10 aircraft will be ready for delivery, Dassault said.

The 7X’s aerodynamic configuration has now been frozen. Dassault engineers are completing a wind-tunnel model to confirm aerodynamic predictions. Dassault’s plant in Biarritz has produced the first tailfin box for the 7X, using the resin-transfer molding (RTM) process. The latest parts manufactured also include fuselage and wing panels.

Dassault has shelved plans, for now, for a new midsize jet. However, the methods and processes Dassault is applying for the first time on the 7X could be used to build such an aircraft at a reasonable cost in the future. “More composite materials help make production cheaper,” Villa noted. In addition, concurrent engineering based on computer-aided tools could cut production setup costs by 50 percent and shave development time.

Sales Outlook
Edelstenne took the opportunity to give a sales update. The delivery forecast for this year has changed. Last May Dassault was still hoping to deliver between 50 and 60 civil aircraft. In June, this number was predicted to be “close to 50,” and it has now fallen to “close to 40.”

The number of orders taken so far this year, as low as 20, seems not to have moved since the Paris Air Show in June. In fact, at one point it fell to 16 because of four cancellations, and then moved back up again to 20. In September last year the order intake was close to 40 for the year. The current backlog is close to 135, Dassault officials said. They expect Falcons to account for 60 percent of this year’s company-wide revenues, which would be lower than last year’s share. Asked about the effects of the U.S.-French diplomatic blow over Iraq, Jean-François Georges, senior v-p for civil aircraft, answered that the company “almost did not feel them” on sales.

The production rate for Falcons has been cut to 3.5 aircraft per month. However, Dassault has kept employment steady so far (see AIN, August 2003, page 46). The situation is more difficult, however, in some subsidiaries such as Dassault Falcon Jet in the U.S., Georges acknowledged. There, the number of working hours has been significantly reduced.

Dassault officials still see a few positive signs in this gloomy picture–plenty of prospects; good utilization of business jets worldwide; and a slight decline in the inventory of pre-owned Falcons for sale. Georges said there are about 150 Falcons on the pre-owned market, 10 of which belong to Dassault. However, he said he does not expect the current depressed (from his perspective) pre-owned market to perk up properly before next summer.

The lower number of planned deliveries for this year is due partly to the deferred handover of several Falcon 900EX EASy-equipped trijets. “We initially planned to deliver 12 aircraft with the new flight deck this year, but certification has been delayed because of the problems Honeywell has experienced,” Olivier Villa, head of Falcon programs, told AIN. He hopes the aircraft will receive certification next month. If that happens, six of the $35 million aircraft will be delivered before year-end.

Before the Falcon 900EX EASy gets certification from both the U.S. and European civil aviation authorities, Dassault still has some work to do. “We were asked for some validations we did not expect, because it is [one of] the first certification programs for a modular avionics system,” Villa said. And, as it is not an evolution of an existing flight deck but a completely new one, every validation take starts from scratch, he explained. The FAA and JAA therefore have asked for a number of long-duration flights in actual conditions. At press time invited pilots were still conducting these flights. The silver lining in this protracted development, according to Villa, is the satisfaction expressed by customers during demo flights.