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Plane Designer Mulls Partnerships to End Delays: Corporate India

Plane Designer Mulls Partnerships to End Delays
The Saras aircraft takes off from the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) airport in Bangalore on June 7, 2004. National Aerospace Laboratories spent 23 years on the Saras project and has yet to win local certification for the plane, one of which crashed during a test flight in 2009. Photographer: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

India, seeking to build its first regional aircraft, is considering roping in local and foreign partners for the project, after spending more than two decades to build a smaller plane.

A study under review by a government panel favors tie-ups with equipment makers rather than purchasing engines and parts from them, Satish Chandra, head of aircraft program at National Aerospace Laboratories, a state-owned plane designer involved in the development, said in a telephone interview from Bangalore. He didn’t give a timeframe for the project.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month approved the plan for a 70- to 100-seat aircraft as economic growth and rising disposable incomes spur air travel demand. Boeing Co. expects India will require 1,450 planes in 20 years. The project will also help the nation catch up with China, Japan and Russia in building a regional aircraft and reduce dependence on Bombardier Inc. and Embraer SA, the two companies that dominate the market for such planes.

“You need to start somewhere and you need to build the expertise so that it has spinoffs to other sectors,” Chandra said. “Projects like these may actually be the kickstart for you to integrate into the global economy.”

India’s plan to build the regional aircraft comes after little success with an earlier attempt to build an indigenous 14-seat plane called Saras. NAL spent 23 years on the project and has yet to win local certification for the plane, one of which crashed during a test flight in 2009.

Plane Crash

The plane crashed because of reasons including NAL’s failure to consult the aircraft’s propeller maker during tests, according to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the nation’s civilian aviation regulator that probed the accident.

Saras’s certification by the Center for Military Airworthiness & Certification under India’s defense ministry is expected this year, according to NAL website. Chandra declined to comment on the current status of Saras, which means crane in Sanskrit.

The nation’s bid to build a fighter jet has also suffered setbacks. State-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. is yet to start deliveries of the Light Combat Aircraft, which uses a General Electric Co. engine. The program was approved in 1983.

“The complexity of commercial aircraft development is well beyond the capabilities of NAL and HAL,” said Ernie Arvai, chief executive officer of the Arvai Group, a Windham, New Hampshire-based aviation consultancy. “The Saras project was a disaster. The failure of the Light Combat Aircraft program and others clearly indicate a lack of capability in integrating the various element of aircraft design into feasible and safe designs.”

787, A380

Delays for new aircraft are common in the industry. Boeing Co. and Airbus SAS, both with years of experience building large, complicated jets, have had to push back introductions.

The 787 Dreamliner, Boeing’s most advanced jet, entered commercial service at the end of 2011 after more than three years of delays. Airbus A380 superjumbo began commercial flights in 2007 after more than two years of delays and cost overruns.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.’s aircraft unit, which is making Japan’s first regional passenger jet, last week pushed back the delivery of its first plane by more than a year. Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China is said to delay the maiden test flight of the country’s first large passenger plane to 2015 from an earlier plan for next year.

Chandra said the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council will study the regional aircraft plan and a decision on number of its seats and the type of engine will be decided later. NMCC Chairman V. Krishnamurthy didn’t respond to calls to his work phone and e-mailed questions.

Mahindra, Taneja

The government is considering to set up a special purpose vehicle to steer the development and production of the plane, according to a July 9 statement from the Prime Minister’s Office. The capabilities of NAL and HAL and other institutions in the country will be utilized, according to the statement.

Carriers in India will need 1,450 new planes worth $175 billion over the next 20 years, Boeing forecast in February. The International Air Transport Association has said India may be the world’s fastest-growing aviation market after Kazakhstan by 2016.

“There’s no point reinventing the wheel on technologies that may have already been developed elsewhere at a fraction of the cost,” said Amber Dubey, a Gurgaon, India-based partner at consultancy KPMG. “The critical requirement would be to provide adequate funding support, fix clear accountability and specific time, cost and quality targets.”

Private Partners

NAL last year held talks with a unit of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. and Taneja Aerospace & Aviation Ltd. on partnering for the regional aircraft. Mumbai-based Mahindra, India’s biggest maker of sport-utility vehicles, bought two Australian aerospace companies in 2009.

Taneja, based in Tamil Nadu, southern India, makes light planes. It is India’s only private company to have locally developed a certified aircraft, according to its website.

Saab AB last year said it’ll pursue a risk-sharing partnership with a yet-to-be-selected company from India, as it considered a return to the regional-plane market. NAL’s Chandra said companies and countries have shown interest in the regional aircraft project without naming anyone.

“From the beginning, they will need private industry partners,” said Dhiraj Mathur, an executive director at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP’s India unit. “The aerospace industry is not an easy industry.”

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