EC145 Mercedes-Benz Style unleashed on dormant segment

 - June 27, 2011, 5:30 AM

Eurocopter exhibited the first example of the EC145 Mercedes-Benz at Ebace in Geneva in May. Unveiled last year as a scaled-down mock-up, the new version consists of aesthetic and practical innovations, aimed at making the cabin more comfortable for passengers accustomed to the luxury of fixed-wing cabins.

The cabin of the EC145 Mercedes-Benz Style can seat up to eight passengers in comfort. The Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio in Como, Italy, is also proposing to rearrange the cabin to accommodate up to four passengers with space to carry surfboards or a pair of mountain bikes for weekend excursions.

To enable configuration changes, the seats are mounted on rails. “Multifunction boxes” that can house a cooler, a DVD player or a table can also slide on the rails. Finally, the aft separation wall can slide to change the size of the luggage compartment and sports gear can be secured at several attachment points.

Passengers can adjust both the intensity and color of the cabin’s ambient lighting. The customer can choose from several kinds of wood for the floor and ceiling. Externally, even the nose has been redesigned to avoid what was perceived as a too tech-looking avionics compartment.

The airframe changes (such as the nose and landing skids) necessitate fresh certification, which Eurocopter expects this year. The airframer has received a firm order for one machine so far, and the delivery, to a European customer, is planned by year-end. The EC145 Mercedes-Benz is priced between €6 and €6.5 million ($8.4 to $9.1 million) depending on the level of completion, Patrice Royer, Eurocopter’s director for market development, commercial business and private segment, told AIN.

Market Effort

Eurocopter launched the Mercedes-Benz version of the EC145 on a relatively quiet market. “We are seeing a progressive recovery,” Royer asserted. The company felt the downturn primarily between late 2008 and last year. While business is now stabilizing, it is not growing.

In 2007, Eurocopter delivered 167 business and private helicopters. The year after was almost as good, at 150 deliveries. This dwindled to 49 in 2009, before a slight increase, to 58, in 2010. Royer said his company is on track to deliver 50 to 60 helicopters in that segment this year.

“The glut of [recently built] helicopters on the second-hand market will take a couple of years to be absorbed,” Royer explained. In the meantime, sale cancellations have virtually disappeared this year. During the “golden years,” between 2005 and 2008, delivery lead times were reaching 36 months.

The light helicopter segment seems to have suffered the most in the years since the downturn began. Private customers, such as wealthy individuals, have not cancelled their orders; commercial operators have felt the impact more strongly.

From a geographic perspective, the downturn has not hit all regions similarly. According to Royer, North America has suffered from the same syndrome as business aviation in general. In Europe, “people stopped buying,” Royer said. Latin America has been almost unaffected. Asia has been hit “but is starting to recover.” Finally, Africa and the Middle East have been affected little, Royer noted.

The manufacturer sees reasons for optimism about sales in new markets. India is opening its doors “but there is still a lot of red tape to go through for each contract.” Russia, which is “waking up,” has helicopter buyers behaving “more and more like Western Europeans.” China, where airspace is opening, is more oriented toward luxury, Royer said.

He distinguished between two kinds of customer. Private customers who favor speed tend to opt for the 140-knot AS350 B3 Ecureuil. Those who prefer comfort select the EC130 for the size of the cabin, the reduced noise and vibration levels and the visibility.

Corporate customers clearly rate comfort over speed. The equipment they ask for includes satellite phone, power outlets and air conditioning. Video players tend to be less in fashion. “We are making efforts in mood lighting, as in the EC145 Mercedes-Benz,” Royer added.