Dassault Falcon Jet president John Rosanvallon says the new 7X long-range flagship will strengthen its hand in the USA
Next month's Paris air show will see the public debut of two fly-by-wire, long-range passenger aircraft built in the south-west of France. But while the A380 is likely to dominate the headlines at Le Bourget, Airbus bosses might be tempted to trade column inches for the North American orderbook of the Dassault Falcon 7X as they continue to search for their first US passenger airline customer.
Dassault – the only European player among business aviation's big five – has notched up more than 50 orders for its new trijet, most of them from its core US market. The aircraft – which was rolled out in February and made its first flight on 5 May – propels the French manufacturer into the prestigious top end of the market fought over by Gulfstream's G550 and Bombardier's Global Express.
After 15 years living in the USA, Dassault Falcon Jet president and chief executive John Rosanvallon's vowels straddle the Atlantic as comfortably as his company. "We continue to be impressed by the reception for the 7X. We've had more firm orders before first flight than with any other programme," says Rosanvallon, who has been with Dassault since joining as a business school graduate in 1975. He has just been made a Chevalier of the French Legion d'Honneur for services to US-French trade.
Dassault's reputation was largely unscathed by the breakdown in Washington-Paris relations over Iraq. Although its aircraft are designed in St Cloud, near Paris, and built in Bordeaux, Dassault Falcon Jet is perceived by many of its US customers to be a home-grown company, thanks to its New Jersey headquarters and completion centre in Wichita, Kansas, where a new dedicated 7X hall is due to open next year.
Dassault may have evaded the anti-French backlash, but like its competitors it could not escape the downturn in confidence in the business aviation sector after 9/11. In 2003, Dassault took only 40 Falcon orders and made 50 deliveries. "It was our low point," says Rosanvallon, who first moved to the US in 1979 to work for Falcon Jet, then a joint venture with Pan-American World Airways.
Since 2003, recovery has been impressive. Last year was "much better", says Rosanvallon, with 69 orders and 63 deliveries. Although he says it is too early to make predictions about 2005, there has been a "steep turnaround…the momentum has continued". He expects deliveries to increase again next year and then jump forward significantly in 2007, when 7X shipments begin. The company is already assembling airframes at its Merignac, Bordeaux factory and says several aircraft will be "90% complete" by the final quarter of next year.
The 7X is not the only new programme for Dassault. Its Falcon 900DX, a defuelled – and $3 million cheaper – version of its 900EX, is intended to fill a gap between the trijet and the smaller and shorter-range 2000EX, and will also fly for the first time this month. Although Rosanvallon is cagey on exact orders, he says Dassault has "sold a high percentage of 2006 production". The manufacturer is also looking hard at the super midsize segment, where it already offers the $21 million Falcon 50EX but may introduce a cheaper, shorter-range aircraft to compete on price terms with the Bombardier Challenger 300 and Hawker Horizon. "We are very interested in exploring the super mid-size segment and continue to do our homework. It is a priority in our planning," says Rosanvallon. "We are looking at a super mid-size aircraft in terms of cabin but not necessarily range, in the $15-20 million market. The Falcon 50EX is a niche product, a workhorse which offers long range and short runway operation."
Another area Dassault is cautiously eyeing is special mission aircraft. Although many 900EXs are in government VIP service – and Rosanvallon expects several customers to "trade up to 7Xs in the next few years" – the French manufacturer has been much less active in the defence and parapublic market than its North American competitors Bombardier and Gulfstream. "We are watching this very closely," says Rosanvallon. "But it's still very limited at less than 3% of the market."
However, Dassault Falcon Jet is poised to offer a missile countermeasures option on its aircraft. "Some of our customers are asking us for this capability and we will be making an announcement on certification within the next year," he says. "It's a natural concern for some of our government customers and certain VIPs. We're not sleeping on it."
Although Dassault will not be giving visitors to next week's European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (EBACE) a glimpse of the 7X, Rosanvallon expects its new flagship to be a talking point at the show. The 7X is the first business jet to use fly-by-wire technology and Rosanvallon says the new-style cockpit will be an attraction rather than a drawback for potential new buyers used to conventional flightdecks. "It has become a selling point today," he says. "If any manufacturer could do this, it is Dassault. Fly-by-wire is no longer an issue; it is now a plus."
A cutaway drawing of the Falcon 7X will appear in our 7 June issue.
Source: Flight International