Eurocopter calls for X4 aid as demand for light helicopters slumps

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Eurocopter may have to radically alter the design of its proposed X4 civil helicopter - potentially limiting use of green technologies - if the French government denies an application for financial support, chief executive Lutz Bertling has warned.

While confirming that Eurocopter will develop a new Dauphin family of rotorcraft regardless of the French authorities' decision, Bertling says that without co-investment the X4 would have to be "a totally different aircraft" from that envisaged, with the EADS-owned manufacturer unprepared to bear the full risk associated with planned innovations.

If state funding is forthcoming, however, the X4 "will, in terms of environmental friendliness and safety of operation, be a major breakthrough", says Bertling, who believes that environmental friendliness will become "a buying factor" in the helicopter market "within this decade".

The Eurocopter chief was speaking during the manufacturer's annual results briefing, at which it was revealed that falling demand for existing Dauphin models contributed to a halving of net order total by units in 2009.

Despite this, order intake rose 18% by value. Bertling attributed Eurocopter's "paradoxical year" to a demand shift away from light helicopters towards heavier machines.

Total order value rose to €5.8 billion ($8.2 billion) from €4.9 billion, with government orders compensating for a drop in the value of commercial orders. The backlog grew to €15.1 billion, around two-thirds of which is military. Meanwhile, net orders - after 105 cancellations - totalled 344 units, down from 715 in 2008 (see table).

Total turnover edged up by 2% to €4.6 billion, despite deliveries slipping from 588 to 558. Eurocopter's services business hit a new high, generating €1.8 billion in revenue. The manufacturer intends to pursue acquisitions in this area.

Citing EADS policy, Bertling declined to specify Eurocopter's individual pre-tax profit, but declared himself "more than satisfied" with it. However, he does not expect civil orders to increase in the first half of 2010, and warns that the onset of recovery will be delayed by the availability for sale of more than 1,000 used helicopters, "most" of them delivered between 2007 and 2009.

With military business robust, however, Eurocopter's 2010 order intake is expected to be "not that much different" from in 2009, coming in at between 300 and 400 units.

As part of a "transformation programme" named Shape, Eurocopter is targeting a €200 million reduction in support function costs by 2011, plus a €500 million reduction in inventories to free up cash for R&D.