Lufthansa commits to 747-8 but braces for possible delay

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By David Kaminski-Morrow

German flag-carrier Lufthansa is braced for a possible further delay to its Boeing 747-8 aircraft in the wake of the newly-disclosed problems with the 787.

The carrier, which has an order for 20 passenger 747-8s, is remaining committed to the type. It is not seeking to defer deliveries of the 747-8 or its Airbus A380s.

But chief financial officer Stephan Gemkow, in an investor presentation on 25 June, said the “quite spectacular” revelation about the latest 787 delay was likely to have a knock-on effect on the larger Boeing’s development.

“I’m sure the delay of the 787 will mean that they have to pull in more engineering resources, and that will [mean] even further delays, as a consequence, for the 747-8,” says Gemkow. “I would not be surprised to learn this some weeks and months in the future.”

He says that, despite the economic slowdown, the carrier has “not undertaken any effort so far to postpone any delivery”.

Lufthansa vice-president of strategy Harald Deprosse backs Gemkow’s statements, saying that the carrier is “sticking to its decision” to acquire the 747-8 and adding that there is “no discussion of a different development”.

Deprosse says the airline is to receive five A380 aircraft next year for operations from Frankfurt Main and that the A380 summer 2010 schedule is on track.

Lufthansa has been examining about 20 destinations for the type and while it has not confirmed its first routes, a source familiar with the strategy indicates that New York will be a priority.

Deprosse says that Lufthansa’s A380 plans initially centre on delivery of 10 aircraft. “There are further five aircraft which were part of the original deal, back in 2001, when Lufthansa ordered 15 A380s,” he says.

“But it’s a mixture, it’s a firm order for the first 10 and there is an option for a final decision for number 11 to number 15. This has never changed, this was the original negotiation in the deal that we had with Airbus.”


Anniversary achievements

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By Murdo Morrison

Four years ago, Aero Vodochody was fighting for its life. The Czech aerospace champion was back under reluctant government control after its one-time saviour Boeing ended an unhappy six-year relationship. Its two flagship programmes – the L-159A advanced light combat aircraft for the Czech air force and the Ae270 utility single-turboprop being developed with a Taiwanese partner – had stalled. With revenues plunging and the company deep in the red, despairing politicians fired the chief executive and warned that unless a buyer came forward, Aero Vodochody would be declared bankrupt.

The situation today could scarcely be more different. Celebrating its 90th anniversary at the Paris air show, Aero Vodochody (named after the village near Prague where its factory is sited) announced record profits in 2008 of $23.6 million on $250 million revenues. It also clinched the latest success for its growing aerostructures business: a deal to design, develop and manufacture wing fixed leading edges for the Bombardier CSeries, in partnership with Belgian manufacturer Sonaca. It joins contracts that include building airframes of the Sikorsky S-76C helicopter, the centre wing box for the Alenia Aeronautica C-27J and door subassemblies for Embraer‘s 170/190.

Aero Vodochody
© Aero Vodochody

ACQUISITIONS

The company – bought by Czech/Slovak investment company Penta in 2006 – is also looking at acquisitions with a view to creating an aerospace group in central and eastern Europe. It is competing on a shortlist of two against Italy’s Finmeccanica for state-owned Polish helicopter manufacturer PZL Swidnik, with Warsaw due to make a decision in July.

Late last year, it made an unsuccessful attempt to buy Romanian supplier IAR Ghimbav and says it is still interested in opportunities in that country.

Two decades from the fall of Communism, several eastern European governments – including Poland, Romania and Ukraine – are still wrestling with what to do with large state-owned chunks of their aerospace industries, which despite a heritage of innovative product development and engineering skills, are often poorly managed and ill-equipped to compete on the world market.

Aero Vodochody
© Aero Vodochody

Aero Vodochody president Igor Hulak says his management team’s experience in transforming an ailing state-run airframer into a first-tier supplier that can stand on its own feet globally makes the company an ideal platform for an “new aerospace holding based in the central European region”, adding: “We can provide that restructuring know-how.”

Although it had already started down the road of building parts for Western manufacturers the previous decade, the decision to firmly reorient itself from a predominantly military airframer to an aerostructures supplier in the mid-2000s secured Aero Vodochody’s future. It was a route partly foisted on the company by the cash-squeezed Czech government’s decision in 2004 to dispose of 47 of the 71 L-159s it had recently taken delivery of from Aero Vodochody, dealing a blow to export prospects.

Since then, the company has successfully built a portfolio of aerostructures contracts, winning work on the C-27J and the E-170/190, as well as with EADS (Airbus A320/A340 subassemblies) and Saab (Gripen JAS-39 Pylons). The CSeries contract takes the business a step further. “It is extremely important. It will be the first time that we have been involved in a major engineering project from the beginning, with complex design input,” says Hulak. “The way into the future for us is in terms of co-operation with the OEMs. Five years ago, we were 80% dependent on the (Czech) military for our revenues. Today, that figure is 15-20%.”

Hulak is quick to stress, however, that the Czech military – for which Aero Vodochody built its first military trainer, the A-1, in 1919 – is not being overlooked. “Our domestic business is small but important and we are working hand in hand with the government and air force to market the L-159,” he says.

There has been some success of late, with an arrangement with EADS to swap five of the aircraft for a C-295 transport and with interest from Bolivia in acquiring another six. Any overseas sales are likely to mean welcome long-term support contracts for Aero Vodochody. Thanks to the transformation of the business, however, such deals are no longer make or break.


Air France 447 – Surface search for A330 wreckage called off after 26 days

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By David Kaminski-Morrow

Brazilian forces have called off the surface search for wreckage and victims from the crashed Air France Airbus A330, although the sub-sea effort to locate the flight recorders is continuing.

Fifty-one bodies and more than 600 structural parts of the aircraft, as well as items of baggage, have been retrieved during the 26-day search operation since the crash on 1 June.

“The technical reason behind the end of the search is the impracticality of sighting survivors or bodies, which was the primary objective of the operation,” says the Brazilian defence ministry.

Over the 15-day period from 12 to 26 June, it states, only two bodies were retrieved and there has been no sighting of victims for nine days. Air France has confirmed that the aircraft’s captain is among those already recovered.

Aircraft wreckage and luggage has been delivered to the French Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses, which is heading the accident inquiry.

French authorities are still co-ordinating an underwater search operation, with various vessels, to detect and locate transmissions from the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorder. While the sonic transmitters on the recorders are designed to operate for at least 30 days, this period will expire in less than a week.

Brazil’s defence ministry describes the search effort for flight AF447 – which crashed while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris – as the “largest and most complex” search and rescue operation undertaken by the country’s forces at sea, covering 350,000km².


Researchers reveal pioneering Solar Impulse prototype

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By David Kaminski-Morrow

Developers in Switzerland have formally unveiled the prototype ‘Solar Impulse‘ experimental solar-powered aircraft which eventually will attempt a round-the-world non-stop flight.

The four-engined aircraft, which has a 63.4m (208ft) wing span but weighs just 1,600kg, was revealed at a ceremony at Dubendorf Airfield today, six years after work began on the programme.

Among the aims of the aircraft – which draws its power from 11,628 silicon cells – is to perform a 36hr endurance flight, including night-flying, before the team embarks on more ambitious tasks.

A second aircraft is planned for 2011 – which, unlike the first, will have a pressurised cockpit – as the researchers bid to make crossings of the USA and the Atlantic, and eventually try to circumnavigate the globe.

Solar Impulse

Speaking during the unveiling today, aviation pioneer Bertrand Piccard, one of the project’s directors, said: “Yesterday it was a dream. Today it’s an aeroplane, and tomorrow it will be an ambassador of renewable energies and energy savings – flying day and night with no fuel and no pollution.”

Solar Impulse has been guided by Andre Borschberg, who stated today: “Six years ago, when we launched the project, we were facing so many challenges, so many uncertainties, that we could not dare to think of a moment like this one.”

Present at the unveiling today was IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani, who described the ceremony as a “great, great event” which “shows to the world that carbon-free flight is possible”.

Solar Impulse


Vueling set to start merged life in July

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By Graham Dunn

Merging Barcelona-based low-cost carriers Clickair and Vueling expect the final piece of regulatory approval from the Spanish authorities shortly, enabling the newly-merged entity to begin its new joint life during July.

Under the merger, for which the carriers secured European Commission approval in January, the combined carrier will operate asVueling and begin with a fleet of 35 Airbus A320s. The new carrier will be 45%-owned by Clickair shareholder Iberia.

“As we head to the end of the second quarter we only have one regulatory approval left,” explained chief executive designate for the new carrier Alex Cruz, the chief of Clickair, during a recent media briefing in London. The final piece of the regulatory jigsaw is an Iberia exemption request over stock market rules requiring shareholders which exceed the 30% threshold to make an offer for outstanding shares.

Vueling (445)

“That should be coming through this or next week,” says Cruz, clearing the way to the companies’becoming a single operation. “[Clickair’s brand] will disappear in July. We still don’t know exactly when will be the last flight.

“When we get this final regulatory approval, hopefully this week, we’ll enter the final set of co-ordination meeting with the Spanish aviation authorities.”

While Cruz could not give a precise date for the transition, he expects it to be around the middle of July. “On ‘D-day’ we will have everything done but the painting of the aircraft,” he says. Painting of the first batch of Clickair aircraft into Vueling colours will begin in September and all 18 Clickair aircraft should be ready by the middle of November.

Cruz believes the merged entity strikes a good balance between the two airlines. “The starting position for both carriers was quite similar. Both sides felt they had something to lose,” says Cruz. Clickair had a brand which stood to vanish in the merger. Vueling had its own history and shareholders, says Cruz, when “all of a sudden, Iberia appeared in the picture”.

But while Iberia is a strong shareholder, Cruz says Vueling has freedom to make its own decisions. Vueling competes with Iberia on a number of routes. “Obviously 45% [of the shares] gives you a lot of say,” says Cruz. “But from the very beginning, Iberia knew that it could not interfere with the start of Clickair and I think they fully understand any interference from an operations perspective, will have a detrimental effect.”

Inversiones Hemisferio is the second-largest shareholder in the new entity, with 15%, while Air Nostrum owner Nefinsa holds a 5% stake. The majority of the remaining stock is freely traded. Both Clickair and Vueling are represented in the merged carrier’s leadership, Cruz as chief being joined by Vueling’s Josep Pique as non-executive chairman.

Alex Cruz (200), Vueling

“I think overall – say, a year from now – we’re going to be able to say we have managed to balance things,” says Cruz.

He says the decision to stick to the more-established Vueling name exploits the strength of the brand in Spain. “Vueling is a very strong brand and it spent of a lot of money on this at the very beginning,” he says. “Vueling is considered as the ‘apple’ of Spain. These are attributes people relate to.

“[With] Clickair there is a feeling this is a very efficient operation and a cost-efficient platform.”

The merger brings together two prominent players at Barcelona. Vueling has around 12% market share and Clickair around 14%. “Together we will have the largest market share at Barcelona,” says Cruz. Barcelona is one of six Spanish bases the joint carrier will have, in a network spanning 90 routes and which will carry around 11 million passengers this year.

Vueling is aiming for annual revenues of €800 million ($1.1 billion). It hopes to generate synergy revenues of between €40-45 million annually, and cost synergies of up to €75 million over the next three years.

Between 40 and 60 jobs will be cut through merging the headquarters operations, while some handling roles will be transferred outside of the company meaning total headcount will be reduced to around 1,300 compared with 1,600 today.

Both carriers were loss-making at an operating level in 2008, although Vueling’s financial performance last year showed a marked improvement on 2007. Cruz is reluctant to make predictions on the year ahead, but says the extent to which lower fuel costs can offset falling demand will be key.

“I think it is fair to say that the fuel environment has created new opportunities for profitability for both companies,” says Cruz. “At the same time the drops in demand in passengers flown in Spain have been staggering.”

He says the Spanish market’s figures are 20-25% down over the first five months of the year. “Do both things together put us in a position of profitability? I can’t say. We will be closer to being able to say later in the year,” he states.


Sikorsky, FAA rethinking S-92A transmission failure modes

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The US Federal Aviation Administration and Sikorsky “are working to identify all the modes of failure that might lead to Sikorsky S-92A main gearbox oil loss, determining their probability of occurrence, and developing appropriate mitigation strategies”, says the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).

The action, reported in an 18 June TSB update on crash of a Cougar Helicopters S-92A that was attempting to return to the coast of Newfoundland on 12 March, follows TSB’s determination that the heavylift twin helicopter’s tail rotor drive had failed during the final minutes of the flight.

Pilots about 10min earlier had reporting a loss of main gearbox oil pressure while en route to several oil platforms in the Atlantic and had reversed course and descended from 9,000ft (2,745m) to 800ft above the ocean.

An analysis of the recovered main gearbox revealed that two of three titanium oil filter bowl studs had cracked, which possibly led to the loss of oil in the gearbox and the failure indications in the cockpit. The US FAA later required all operators to change out the titanium studs for steel equivalents in an emergency airworthiness directive.

Sikorsky
© Sikorsky

The post-crash main gearbox analysis showed that there was “no loss of main rotor drive”, although the tail rotor drive gears had been “severely damaged, resulting in the loss of drive, causing it to stop producing thrust”.

Although the helicopter’s voice and flight data recorders failed minutes before the crash for as-yet unexplained reasons, reconstructed flight performance data from the aircraft’s health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) and its flight computers reveals that the helicopter had slowed to 85kt (155km/h) as it descended through 500ft, after which pilots began shutting down both engines, “which was consistent with a tail rotor drive failure emergency”, according to the TSB.

Without the anti-torque control produced by the tail rotor, a helicopter is uncontrollable in its yaw axis when the engines are producing torque. It is not yet clear why the S-92’s flotation system, which had been activated in the cockpit, did not inflate upon impact with the water. Seventeen of the 18 on board died in the accident.

Although the helicopter was certificated under the FAA’s rigorous Part 29 requirements, questions are arising as to whether the potential for a catastrophic loss of oil should have been anticipated before certification.

“Based on the applicable guidance material at the time of certification, the lubrication failure modes of interest were limited to the failure of external lines, fittings, valves, and coolers,” says the TSB.

Although doing so was “consistent with industry experience” at the time, the TSB says that as a result of the fracture of the filter bowl mounting studs in the Cougar accident, the “certification guidance material is being reviewed”.