The European-based aircraft company, Airbus, is strengthening its linkages with the South African aviation market by investing in beneficiation processes associated with downstream industries making components for their commercial and military crafts.
Airbus in Toulouse, France, is focusing on these projects with a view to reigniting the A400M – a defence transport aircraft – programme, which the South African defence department decided was too expensive four years ago.
Airbus analyst Tina Rose said Airbus – which is owned by EADS with plants in Hamburg, Toulouse, Seville and Filton near Bristol – planned to double its procurement from South Africa by 2020. It currently imports components from South Africa worth R350 million a year.
While top Airbus officials were cautious to comment about negotiations with the South African government about the possible future use of the A400M to assist with SA National Defence Force (SANDF) troop and military vehicle deployment in African countries, it is the company’s view that the aircraft was essential to fulfil South Africa’s continental peacekeeping obligations.
In his medium-term budget policy statement Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan allocated almost R60m for contractual penalties incurred by Denel Aerostructures relating to the A400M cancelled contract.
South Africa announced in 2004 that it would purchase eight A400Ms at a cost of e837m (R11 billion). It cancelled them in 2009.
It is estimated that South Africa needs 300 new non-military aircraft over the next 20 years to cater for its commercial and tourist expansion on the continent.
Airbus strategic marketing and analysis executive Andrew Gordon said South Africa “is helping drive the development of aviation on the African continent with a requirement of over 300 passenger aircraft to serve the South African market by 2032”. Africa as a whole would need about 1 000 new aircraft in this time.
The company, which produces the A400M in Seville, Spain, makes much play of the fact that Denel Aerostructures produced the wing-to-fuselage fairing and fuselage top-shells.
Top-shells, machined skins of aluminium alloy positioned between the wings and the fuselage, are made up of more than 1 000 parts.
In September, the first Airbus A400M with these South African design and manufacturing contributions was handed over to the French air force, Engineering News reported.
The wing-to-fuselage fairing functions as a protective, aerodynamic shroud over sensitive equipment located in the centre wing part of the A400M. It is believed to be the largest single aircraft component yet produced in South Africa, SAinfo reported.
Airbus is going out of its way to support Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies’ plan to encourage the domestic beneficiation of the country’s mineral resources.
Rose noted that Airbus had signed an agreement with the local scientific research and development organisation, CSIR, focusing on titanium powder production. While it was still in the evaluation phase, it was envisaged that this would be used instead of a heavier steel on aircraft and would likely be much cheaper.
Earlier in the year, Airbus Military placed a R200m contract with Denel for the manufacturing of “ribs, spars and swords” – the inside structure of the A400M’s tail section.
Denel chairman Zoli Kunene notably described the A400M as “the most cost-efficient and versatile airlifter ever conceived and absolutely unique in its capabilities”, SAinfo reported.
A private local aeronautical engineering and manufacturing company, Aerosud – formed in 1990 by the then key designers of the Denel Rooivalk attack helicopter – manufactures the A400M’s cockpit lining, cabinet lining and the wing-tip.
In addition, Cape Town-based Cobham SATCOM supplies the aircraft’s satellite communications antennae and underlying systems. It also supplies these for the A320, A350, as well as the Boeing B737 and B747.
Plane Talking’s Linden Birns, who represents Airbus locally, pointed out that the A400M was ideally suited to the typical African peace-support missions that were undertaken by South Africa. It has a range of 3 297km with a payload of 37 tons. This puts it within easy reach from Waterkloof with Kinshasa or Nairobi. With a lesser load of 30 tons, the range jumps to 4 537km, while with a 20 ton payload, the range moves up to 6 389km. This would take it to Abu Dhabi or Cairo from Waterkloof with ease.
Didier Vernet, the head of A400M product marketing, said the craft meant “quicker deployment” – in three days 400 troops, 60 vehicles and 100 tons of equipment could be delivered to a hotspot using 10 A400Ms. South Africa is reliant on dated Hercules aircraft and hired aircraft for its current deployments in Africa.
Earlier this year SAA took delivery of its first two A320s out of a total of 20 A320 “family” aircraft ordered in 2010 from Airbus. The A320s listed price is $91.5m (about R911.9m). The A320s will replace its present fleet of 737-800s – produced by competitor Boeing – and will augment the A319s it already has in service, marking the latest phase of SAA’s fleet modernisation plan.
Birns said SAA had, in addition, begun a tender process for more fuel-efficient and economic aircraft to replace its current fleet of four-engined A340-600s.
Airbus’s Michael Bausor, the A350 XWB marketing director, said his company was proposing that “a future fleet solution” be built around the A350 family of twin-engined long haul planes.
Airbus airline marketing manager Kwame Bekoe argued that this would save SAA through efficiencies arising out of commonality including shorter conversion training for pilots, cabin crew and technical personnel. Commonality refers to the similarities of the A330-200s, A319s and A320s with common spares and technical support infrastructure.
The writer was a guest of Airbus in France.