Two month flight test delay for 728 prototype threatens certification schedule

Fairchild Dornier is again seeking new financial backing to overcome a cash crunch as expected airline orders fail to materialise. Further compounding the manufacturer's problems is a delay in the start of 728 flight testing that threatens to impact the 70-85-seat aircraft's certification and delivery schedule.

The announcement comes only weeks after Fairchild Dornier's shareholders and a consortium of German banks provisionally agreed to pump an additional $870 million into the company. It would appear that this is tied to a new strategic partner being enlisted to help Fairchild Dornier further develop and sell its 728/928 family.

Fairchild Dornier is looking for a partner to bring "financial capital and a wide range of product, technology and marketing capabilities".

The company was rescued from the financial brink in 1999 by Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (CDR) and Allianz Capital, which took a 70% and 23% holding respectively, but neither was viewed as long-term investors. "It has always been known that CDR's objective is to build up the company and sell it," observes a senior company executive. "When talking to the airlines and trying to sell aircraft, they want to have a better understanding of our ownership, so why not expedite bringing on a strategic partner?"

Majors Air France, British Airways and Qantas have postponed decisions on a new 70-110-seater, but prospects should improve by 2003.

A Fairchild Dornier source claims there are up to a dozen potential partners. Boeing declines to comment on reports that it is a potential suitor, while Bombardier Aerospace's president Robert Brown was reported as stating it could potentially be a good fit. The Canadian company later reversed its position and said it was not interested.

Meanwhile, Fairchild Dornier faces at least a two month delay in its 728 flight test schedule. The aircraft is due to roll out on 21 March and was expected to fly in May, but this has been pushed back to at least July. The prototype's first flight is scheduled for "this summer".

The company denies that the delay is related to the search for cash, but development delays. "Secondary structure and wire harnesses have taken longer to design and install due to many small changes that needed to be incorporated on the first prototype...we have added an additional flight test aircraft to increase our capability and flexibility," it says.

The manufacturer hopes to partially offset the delay by expanding use of its iron bird. However, certification of the baseline 728-100, set for May 2003, has slipped. Fairchild Dornier says this is "forecast for summer-autumn [third quarter] 2003, essentially compatible with the requirements of our customers. Type certification of the [longer range] 728-200 is on schedule as planned before the end of 2003".

Source: Flight International