A WING AND A PRAYER

WINGS Af­ter a lengthy ges­ta­tion pe­riod, the Hon­da­jet has fi­nally taken to the skies.

Robb Report (Malaysia) - - Wings - Photo HOOMAN BAHRANI

To chart the ca­reer of Honda Air­craft Com­pany’s CEO Michi­masa Fu­jino is to chart the his­tory of the Hon­dajet HA-420 it­self. And for that mat­ter, the am­bi­tions of the com­pany.

Fu­jino joined Honda in 1984 straight out of univer­sity.

An aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer by train­ing, the soft-spo­ken Fu­jino

started in the au­to­mo­bile di­vi­sion, though like the com­pany’s founder, Soichiro Honda, he al­ways wanted to build an air­craft.

Achiev­ing this is no small feat, since af­ter the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties dur­ing World War II, Ja­pan hasn’t had much of an air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try. The Hon­dajet is an air­craft over three decades in the mak­ing – from the time the idea was mooted in the late 1980s to its maiden flight in 2003 and the first cus­tomer de­liv­er­ies in late 2015.

Hav­ing been with the Hon­dajet project since the be­gin­ning, it’s clear from the way Fu­jino speaks about the plane that it’s been a labour of love for him. But as with most good love sto­ries, the path hasn’t al­ways been smooth.

Nu­mer­ous de­lays plagued the project and there was even a time when it was feared the Hon­dajet might end up like so much vapour­ware. The rea­sons are mul­ti­ple, ex­plained Fu­jino. First is the new tech­nol­ogy un­der­pin­ning the HA-420 – unique over-wing en­gines, com­pos­ite fuse­lage and seg­ment-lead­ing per­for­mance. Adding to that is how the HA-420 is de­vel­oped al­most en­tirely in-house by Honda. Even the en­gines are an orig­i­nal Honda de­sign, pro­duced in a joint ven­ture with GE Avi­a­tion.

The HA-420’S tech­ni­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, and the time needed to de­velop it, was a ne­ces­sity, said Fu­jino. “If Honda was to in­tro­duce an air­craft, we have to have some­thing com­pletely new.”

What took even longer is the cer­ti­fi­ca­tions by the rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties, and some­times the wait­ing (due to the un­avail­abil­ity of leg­is­la­tors or Honda’s staff them­selves). Some­thing be­yond their con­trol, lamented Fu­jino.

“If we were an older air­craft man­u­fac­turer, some cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­cesses can be del­e­gated, but we are new en­trants to the in­dus­try, we can’t. Our per­son­nel must al­ways be in at­ten­dance for test­ing.”

Now that the HA-420 has fi­nally got­ten off the ground ( lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively), the real work can start and it’s go­ing up against some ex­tremely stiff com­pe­ti­tion.

Not only have Honda’s main ri­vals been do­ing it for longer, they have the fi­nan­cial clout to buy up smaller play­ers to ex­pand their prod­uct port­fo­lio (what Gulf­stream did with Gal­axy Aerospace in the early 2000s) and of course, they have brand recog­ni­tion.

Buy­ing a car from a new in­dus­try player is one thing, but buy­ing a mul­ti­mil­lion- dol­lar air­craft from a hith­erto com­pletely un­known quan­tity – as trusted a name though they may be in the au­to­mo­tive sec­tor – is some­thing else en­tirely. Fu­jino, how­ever, isn’t wor­ried. “I don’t like to think about how we can’t do it, but rather how we can. We have the best per­for­mance, the best fuel ef­fi­ciency and the largest cabin. Prod­uct-wise, we’re su­pe­rior to oth­ers.”

It seems that cus­tomers in the US, a key mar­ket for busi­ness avi­a­tion, is con­vinced. Honda de­liv­ered 43 HA-420S in 2017, mak­ing it the num­ber one seller in its seg­ment over there, man­ag­ing to out­sell the stal­wart Ci­ta­tion M2. Ac­cord­ing to Fu­jino, the HA-420 com­mands a 40 per cent share of the mar­ket.

Asia, how­ever, might prove a tougher nut to crack. Busi­ness

avi­a­tion in the re­gion has proved slow to take off (ex­cuse the pun again), and even if peo­ple here do fly pri­vate, they tend to pre­fer larger air­craft, es­pe­cially in China.

A rather in­con­ve­nient double whammy to Honda, but Fu­jino sees an op­por­tu­nity.

“They don’t ap­pre­ci­ate how a small jet can be used. I’m look­ing at a sort of feeder ser­vice in Asia. Let’s say some­one trav­els first class (on a com­mer­cial air­line), they have to use a re­ally old, large air­craft (for do­mes­tic flights). Also, younger busi­ness­peo­ple are seek­ing in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity, so they may not want to use a US$16 mil­lion (RM63 mil­lion) jet to carry two pas­sen­gers. It makes more sense to use a US$5 mil­lion jet.”

Buoyed by its num­bers else­where, Fu­jino has big plans for the re­gion.

“I’m tar­get­ing over a 30 per cent share, and go­ing by what we see else­where, I think it’s fea­si­ble. I want peo­ple to know how ben­e­fi­cial a small jet can be for their busi­nesses.”

It’s not as if Fu­jino is un­ac­cus­tomed to soar­ing am­bi­tion or fly­ing in the face of con­ven­tional wis­dom. The HA-420 and its over-wing en­gines are proof enough of that. But more than that, he hopes to change the way busi­ness avi­a­tion, well, does busi­ness.

Where most man­u­fac­tur­ers have rep­re­sen­ta­tive re­gional of­fices and per­haps rely on third-party con­trac­tors for ser­vic­ing, Honda is em­ploy­ing a dealer model, very sim­i­lar to how it re­tails its cars and mo­tor­cy­cles.

“We don’t just want to sell them the prod­uct, but we also want to pro­vide them ser­vic­ing us­ing the same ‘ face’. Like with cars, you buy an air­craft from a dealer and you bring it back to the dealer for ser­vic­ing,” said Fu­jino.

It’s not a very typ­i­cal way of sell­ing jets, but then again the HA-420 isn’t a very typ­i­cal jet, but that might also be­tray Fu­jino’s en­gi­neer­ing back­ground. He iden­ti­fies prob­lems no­body else can and solves them.

“If you buy some­thing ex­pen­sive, you need a cer­tain level of trust in the per­son sell­ing it to you. If we have good deal­ers at a lo­cal level, they will have a closer re­la­tion­ship with cus­tomers. And if cus­tomers have never owned a busi­ness jet, they’ll want to know a lot of things, like how it should feel, how it’s main­tained, what the own­er­ship costs are.

“That’s why we don’t just want a sales­man. If there is a lo­cal en­tity that can pro­vide com­plete ser­vice pack­ages, it has many ad­van­tages over other busi­ness mod­els,” he as­serted. In the mean­time, Honda has gone to great lengths to build a global dealer net­work, ag­gres­sive pushes at air shows and the ex­pan­sion of its Greens­boro, North Carolina cam­pus. All that for its only prod­uct, the HA-420. Surely an­other is in the off­ing? Isn’t the mar­ket ready for a mid-sized Hon­dajet for cus­tomers look­ing for just that lit­tle bit more than the 1,223 nau­ti­cal mile range than the HA-420 can pro­vide?

And that’s when Fu­jino seemed to turn a lit­tle coy. With an apolo­getic smile, he said: “I can’t say.”

Whether there was some­thing be­hind that smile is hard to tell, but one can sur­mise that the next Hon­dajet is likely to be some­thing deeply im­pres­sive. www. hon­dajet.com ≠

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