Dornier's aircraft range faces changes.

Andrzej Jeziorski/MUNICH

THE 30-SEAT DORNIER 328 turboprop, which was first flown in December 1991, has always been a problem for its manufacturer, Oberpfaffenhofen-based Dornier Luftfahrt.

While its performance, compared with that of its rivals, is impressive, the 328's 335kt (620km/h) maximum cruise speed falls 10kt short of initial targets, and the aircraft is about 1,000kg heavier than first hoped. In a sluggish market, burdened by high costs, Dornier has lost money on every 328 sold, and a long-awaited 50-seat version has never materialised.

In June, the former Daimler-Benz Aerospace subsidiary's ownership changed, and so did the outlook for the 328. Dornier Luftfahrt's new owner, Fairchild Dornier - 80% of which belongs to Fairchild Aircraft of San Antonio, Texas - has revived the stretch and is now looking at re-engineing the 328 with turbofans (Flight International, 11-17 September) - a first in aviation history.

According to Fairchild Dornier marketing director Josef Simmerl, the company started interviewing potential 328-stretch customers in late 1995, and was confronted with strong interest in jet aircraft. Dornier then embarked on a concept study of its 50-seater, with a simultaneous side study on a turbofan variant. The results could now lead to a family, which includes the current turboprop 30-seater, alongside 30- and 50-seat turbofans.

"I have to say we like the idea of a fan over a turboprop at 50 seats," says Fairchild Dornier president James Robinson. As for the 30-seat turbofan, called the 328-300, Robinson believes that the speed with which Dornier could corner this niche gives the company an edge. The aircraft could be flown a year after launch, with the 50-seat Dornier 328-700 following, another year behind, with certification taking a further year for each.

This means, however, another three-year wait for an operational stretched 328, and the continued absence of a 50-seat variant, which has already cost Dornier dearly. It was a contributing factor to the recent decision by Horizon to drop the 328: the airline already operates a dozen 328s, and at first wanted as many as 60.

"The 50-seater [jet] is a critical element of the long-term planning, but there are already two competitors in this market," says Robinson, referring to Bombardier and Embraer. The 30-seater has been given priority, to try to capture an almost virgin segment of the market - the 328-300 would be the first jet-powered aircraft in its class since the Yakovlev Yak-40.

A launch decision is expected by the end of October. For now, Fairchild Dornier is briefing potential customers on the aircraft. The presentations still include the 50-seat turboprop 328-500, but this will be dropped if the jet-aircraft get the green light.

Robinson insists that the re-engineing requires few modifications to the current airframe. The -300 will need a few wing ribs moved to accommodate th powerplants, and more powerful brakes. The company is considering changing from rubber-boot to bleed-air de-icing. The -700 will have two additional fuselage plugs, already being designed. It will also need a longer (23.4m) wing, with additional sweep on the outboard section to allow a 410kt cruise speed. This wing could be scaled and fitted to an upgraded 30-seater.

Since Fairchild's take-over, the company has made substantial cost reductions and is aiming for a 20% cut by mid-1997. Initial plans to centralise marketing, sales and production efforts in San Antonio have been toned down.

"It does not make sense to do European sales out of North America," says Robinson. US staff will market the 328 in their region, and German staff will do the same for Fairchild's 19-seat Metro. Advertising and procurement could still be centralised, however.

Plans announced in June by Fairchild chairman Carl Albert to develop an upgraded Metro 23 - with a stand-up cabin and redesigned wing - in Oberpfaffenhofen have also been placed on hold. For now, efforts must focus on the 328, says Robinson.

Fairchild Dornier has already decided to cut staff at Oberpfaffenhofen by 500, and has been in tough pricing negotiations with suppliers - with some success. It remains committed to keeping production in Germany, but only as long as it is economically viable, says Robinson. Whatever happens, it would be too expensive to transfer 328 production abroad, he adds.

With its drive to slash production costs, Fairchild Dornier is setting ambitious price targets for the 328 turbofans. With the current turboprop 30-seater selling at $9.75 million, the company hopes to bring the -300 on to the market at up to $10.1 million, with the -700 priced below $14 million - about $1 million cheaper than the Embraer EMB-145.

Considering the troubles the programme has had to date, observers might be forgiven for some scepticism at such a radical facelift for the aircraft. Robinson agrees. "I was sceptical myself, now I am very excited. The proof is in doing it, not talking about it," he says. He points out that the programme's non-recurring costs were written off on Fairchild's takeover, leaving the company with "a clean sheet of paper" and the possibility of being a little adventurous.

Source: Flight International