Socata is facing a critical year as the aircraft and aerostructures maker tries to assure its future, ranging from handing over of its first glass-cockpit fitted TBM 850 to potentially launching a new general aviation program.
The EADS unit is currently in talks with potential partners to begin work on an eight-or-more-seat aircraft to augment its six-seater TBM 850, says Jean-Michel Leonard, Socata chairman and CEO. "We believe that we have the competence, capability, and credibility on the market to do more" than the TBM 850.
Exact details of the future program are still being sorted out, including whether it will be a turboprop or jet, but Leonard expects those issues to be resolved in the coming months. The aircraft would be larger and have greater speed than the existing turboprop.
But, Leonord stresses, Socata will not do the project alone - EADS has signaled it doesn´t want to spend the resources to birth a new airplane. Discussions involve both bringing in an industrial partner or simply financial partner who would only provide the monetary wherewithal to see the program move forward (BA, Jan. 14/13).
Interest in the new aircraft is fueled in part by the strong general aviation market, which has bolstered TBM 850 sales in recent years and is causing Socata to boost output from 46 deliveries last year to more than 60 this year. Leonard notes that a further production increase is being considered and that the current market strength would support such a move. Sales for the market segment are so strong that 2008 production slots were sold out last year, with an order intake of 63 aircraft. The order book has just been opened for 2009 and "prospects are quite bright," Leonard says.
Sales of the TBM 850 have now surpassed 150 aircraft, with more than 90 aircraft delivered since program launch in late 2005 - the U.S. market dominates, with around 20 percent of orders from Europe.
Last week Socata rolled out the first major upgrade to the TBM 850, which will start being delivered to customers this year. The aircraft features a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit, but also a larger fuel tank to boost range by 80 nautical miles to around 1,400 nautical miles. The cabin interior has also been refreshed, and the pressurization and air conditioning system is upgraded to improve passenger comfort. The heating/air conditioning system is 50 percent more powerful than before, and two temperature zones now exist, one for the pilot the other for the passengers. The configuration will totally replace the existing TBM 850.
Despite much attention in recent years on the very light jet and light jet market, Leonard says the turboprop sector is holding its own. In fact, he adds, Socata has seen customers who had taken production slots for jets come back to the turboprop market. "There will be space for both types," Leonard says, arguing the market will segment not unlike the regional aircraft business where turboprops and regional jet product lines can be sustained.
But Socata is not only looking to boost its general aviation activities. The company has also long been an aerostructures provider and, this year, has its eye on winning workshare on the Airbus A350. But Airbus´s new production philosophy calls for fewer numbers of larger suppliers, which can take on greater program risk.
To remain a top tier Airbus supplier, Socata has teamed with French equipment maker Daher to have the critical mass to go after the large work packages being put out for bid. Daher has been gradually building its composites expertise and promised to make further investments to support Airbus projects. The partners are already jointly working on the Airbus A350 design plateau being used to devise the new, twin-widebody.
A long-term question remains over Socata, however, and that is its future in EADS. Although EADS CEO Louis Gallois recently highlighted the partnering initiatives, Socata has long been viewed as non-core to EADS and a potential sell-off target. There is a feeling finding a partner for future programs would simply be the first step for EADS to withdraw entirely from the small airplane maker.
Leonard says whatever happens, Socata will keep both the general aviation and aerostructures business together. "What we see is that they reinforce each other."