Eurocopter targets 2013 for China completion center

 - October 1, 2012, 5:35 AM

Eurocopter hopes to establish a completion center for Ecureuil light helicopters in Tianjin, China, by next year to accelerate deliveries for Chinese customers.

On August 30 company president Lutz Bertling signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Feng Zhijiang, president of the Tianjin Free Trade Zone (TFTZ). The EADS subsidiary and the TFTZ are now entering a detailed study phase expected to conclude with a firm contract, probably by year-end; facility construction and staff training would follow in short order. The two expect the joint venture to deliver its first helicopters by the end of next year.

Eurocopter executives target an output of two helicopters per month, but as yet they are uncertain how long it will take to reach that goal. According to Eurocopter, “Ninety percent of Eurocopter customers in China don’t exist yet but will emerge quickly as we anticipate further opening of the skies,” the official said. Bertling echoed that sentiment, characterizing the current growth of China’s general aviation market as “massive.”

The ramp-up in Tianjin will depend on the evolution of the Chinese market for civil helicopters, contingent upon how quickly China opens its low-altitude airspace. The process has begun, but on a schedule that appears loose.

Last year Eurocopter sold “more than 20” helicopters in the country, a jump from the 10 sales annually through 2010. The OEM expects to sell more than 50 aircraft per year in China after 2015.

Among specific needs for the region, Eurocopter has identified a requirement for short order-to-delivery cycles in China. “Some customers just can’t afford to wait for a helicopter,” a Eurocopter official told AIN, explaining that the company will assemble and test fly “bare” helicopters in Europe. The green helicopters will be shipped to Tianjin, a major harbor 65 nm southeast from Beijing, for completion. Eurocopter’s “China Completion Center” will have some aircraft in advance, ready to outfit locally for air ambulance and passenger transport operations, among others. The official declined to comment on another option, which would have been establishing a helicopter final assembly line in China.

Eurocopter already uses the same completion program in other countries such as Singapore, the U.S., Brazil and Australia. In Tianjin, the customization center will first accommodate the Ecureuil series: AS350B2, AS350B3e (aka AStars), EC130B4, EC130T2 and AS355NP. It will be designed to accommodate other Eurocopter types in future.

As part of the EADS group, the facility will benefit from synergies with Airbus’s neighboring A320 final assembly line. For example, logistics to and from Airbus’s factory use proven methods and service providers. Some administrative departments will be shared. Moreover, Airbus already has a dedicated team in place, including a firefighting brigade, for flight-testing new aircraft. For the same purposes, it also has established relationships with local ATC. Eurocopter will benefit from not having to start from scratch.

Union Questions Chinese Project

French union CFTD, through its representatives at Eurocopter Marignane headquarters, is questioning Eurocopter’s plan for a completion center in China. In an open letter to CEO Lutz Bertling, the CFDT delegate notes that the plan is not linked to a sales contract, as opposed to the arrangement in Brazil. “What are the goals in terms of sales, production and compensation, and what is Eurocopter’s strategy vis-a-vis the Z11, a copy of the Ecureuil?” the union asks. The union delegate also wants Bertling to disclose the number of EC120s sold in China (Avicopter is a risk-sharing partner on the program) and to share its “vision for the Chinese EC175” (aka the Avicopter AC352, a 50-50 joint program).