Eclipse accelerates VLJ production schedule

 - December 14, 2007, 10:45 AM

Eclipse Aviation has accelerated its production schedule for the Eclipse 500 very light jet by seven months and announced plans for its customer-support network, an in-house program that would ultimately include seven centers. That would place a shop within one-and-a-half hours’ flying time from any U.S. Eclipse operator’s home base, the company said. At the NBAA Convention last month, Vern Raburn, Eclipse president and CEO, said he hopes to deliver the first Eclipse 500s “within hours of receiving certification” in March 2006.

Over the first 12 months of production, the company plans to build 260 aircraft. During the second 12 months, it will build 880 aircraft. This translates into earlier deliveries for 99 percent of current customers, he said. Under the new schedule, a customer who ordered an Eclipse during the NBAA Convention last month could expect to take delivery in February 2008. Before Eclipse accelerated the production schedule, an October 2004 buyer would have had to wait until September 2008. A company spokesman told AIN he expects the accelerated delivery schedule to stimulate new sales, since the lengthy lead time was seen as a deterrent for buyers. Current price of the Eclipse 500 (in 2000 dollars) is $1.175 million.

“Both the aircraft design and our manufacturing system were conceived to deliver highly scalable, high-volume production,” said Raburn. “We chose to be conservative in our projected ramp [build-up of production rate] until we could test our progressive manufacturing processes, but everything we’ve learned from our test fleet production experience validates our initial strategy and we’re confident we will achieve a sustainable ramp.”

Scalability–both upward and downward–is of primary concern, since the company has no truly accurate way to predict what long-term, year-after-year demand will be after it fills the initial orders. Having a financial plan to sustain the company during times of low production rates is as important as having the capability to increase output to meet high demand.

Also on track is the planned first flight by year-end of a preproduction Eclipse 500 powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofan engines. Current test aircraft are flying with nonconforming temporary engines. The test program, meanwhile, has completed some 25 percent of its total FAA certification work, Raburn said. This includes approval of three key compliance reports: aircraft functional hazard assessment, systems functional hazard assessment and systems critical assessment.

Raburn said the company holds firm orders for 2,126 Eclipse 500s, with about one-third going to “classic owner/operators,” about 10 percent to “others” and the balance to air-taxi operators. Orders for about 130 aircraft are from customers in Europe. He added that he’s seeing increased interest among established flight departments, which are looking at the smaller jets as a way to extend the use of business aviation to other levels in the company.

Developing a Customer Support Network
But, said Raburn, simply building high-performance airplanes is only the first step toward success of a new airplane program, particularly for an OEM start-up company such as Eclipse. So in the area of customer support, Eclipse has settled on a plan to build a network of seven factory service centers in the continental U.S., positioned so that every Eclipse 500 owner will be no more than 1.5 hours’ flying time from the nearest center. (Plans for European service capability are in progress, according to Raburn.) Eclipse had considered partnering with established maintenance providers in North America but chose, instead, to establish an in-house program. Raburn said conventional jet maintenance centers were not set up to handle smaller jets such as the Eclipse. Conversely, shops specializing in smaller, piston aircraft were also incompatible with his company’s needs.

Pending necessary city and state approvals, the first two Eclipse-owned centers, at the company’s headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M., and Gainesville, Fla., are slated to open in 2006 by the time the first customer airplanes are delivered.

In the spirit of corporate transparency, Raburn conceded that the immediate challenges facing Eclipse now are not training, safety or insurability, as many in the industry have claimed. “We’re not worried about these because we’ve already addressed them,” he said. “A major concern right now is an expected shortage of aluminum next year.” (The entire Eclipse airframe is made of aluminum.) “Can we ramp production? Can our supply base handle this?” he asked.

To help prevent production problems, Eclipse has already placed orders for most of the aluminum it needs for next year and is working on its needs for 2006.