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Saturday, March 1, 2003

What’s in a Name?

Jim McKenna, Managing Editor

American Eurocopter does a fair amount of turboprop, regional jet, and transport composite repairs. It’s not just helicopters any more.

It’s all in the name," many people will argue. Trademark lawyers, for instance, and those picking a moniker for their new baby, boat, or pet. But as far as the folks at American Eurocopter’s composite repair shop are concerned, there is more to a name than meets the eye.

"Most people think American Eurocopter is just a helicopter operation," said Steve Burgess, manager of the composite repair shop at the Grand Prairie, Texas company.

The shop was started 15 years or so ago largely to support Eurocopter operators in the Americas. But it has always had a hand in the fixed-wing market.

About 18 months ago, it got a boost in fixed-wing work when Airbus selected it to provide authorized support for radome repairs. Burgess is banking on that contract to help him get a foot in the door of Airbus operators in North, Central, and South America so he can pursue additional composites work from them. "We have enough business," Burgess said, "but we’re always looking for new opportunities."

New ones could come quick. Avions de Transport Regional is seeking a contractor to handle flap overhauls for ATR42s and 72s. The Grand Prairie shop is a top contender for that work, which could involve 500 aircraft over several years.

American Eurocopter started out as a joint venture, owned 60 percent by the helicopter division of Aerospatiale and 40 percent by Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm. Those French and Germany manufacturers set up the composite repair shop at the wholly owned subsidiary in Grand Prairie to help support Eurocopter’s products, each of which was 40 to 50 percent composites. The shop also did composite repair work on ATR aircraft.

When the European partners merged in 2000 into the EADS conglomerate, American Eurocopter became a wholly owned subsidiary of that company.

In October 2002, EADS announced plans to expand American Eurocopter by opening a facility near West Point, Mississippi to do final assembly of AS350s and make components for the AS350, EC130, and AS355 helicopters. The Mississippi facility also will handle customization of helicopters.

The Grand Prairie facility is an FAA-certificated repair station that the company says provides "complete engineering support of helicopter operations," including a guaranteed zero-turn time on main rotor blades for the Astar, Twinstar, and Dauphin.

Turn-time continues to be the chief demand of the composites shop’s customers, Burgess said, "so they can get the helicopter or aircraft up in the air generating revenue," he said. Customers, of course, want that turnaround "at an attractive price."

The 13,000-square-foot shop includes a 9,000-square-foot work area for the nine technicians on staff, all but two of whom hold certificates, Burgess said. The shop includes an oven to accommodate larger components and portable equipment to enable technicians to perform repairs at customers’ facilities. The shop’s "away kits" include Heatcon HSC9000-series dual-zone hot bonders.

The shop offers hot and cold bonding, ultrasonic inspections, and provision of thermal protection for engine and exhaust cowling and heat blankets.

"Gradually we’ve expanded the work," Burgess said, to include composite repairs on commuter aircraft and regional jets. Heavy-transport repairs came in the door with the contract for radome repairs on A300s, A310s, the A320 family, A330s, and A340s.

Today, the shop does radome repairs on ATR42s and 72s, Saab turboprops, and Embraer 135s and 145s as well as the Airbuses, and repairs to flaps, rudders, ailerons, and elevators on all of those aircraft. The shop works by the book.

"We don’t deviate from the structural repair manual or the composites maintenance manual," Burgess said. The company does have engineering capabilities, particularly in developing Eurocopter repairs and modifications.

The Airbus contract has Burgess "doing a bit more travel to Airbus operators" in a bid to win more business from them. He’s visiting operators in Central and South America as well as those in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.

"Once we get their radomes in," he said, "we can go back to the operators to address other problems they may have."

Burgess’s travels come as airlines, faced with persistent losses and no sign of relief, are reconsidering their maintenance operations and costs. This review may lead to even more work for American Eurocopter’s composite shop and other maintenance activities.

"There’s a lot of re-evaluation of in-house capabilities," he said. "Operators that have been doing repairs themselves are looking at cutting back on personnel."

That work will have to be done by someone, however.

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