Coming this Fall: The first RAF A400M airlifter is due in September. (Airbus)
LONDON — A key element of the support package required by the Royal Air Force (RAF) to operate its new A400M Atlas airlifter has fallen into place with a decision to award a maintenance contract on the aircraft.
British regional airline company Flybe Aviation Services is expected to be named as the winning bidder for work on the RAF’s latest aircraft once the deal is signed in the next few weeks, according to sources familiar with the work.
The deal comes as Britain and France close on a deal to reduce A400M costs by deepening collaboration on spares and support management.
The appointment of Flybe as the A400M maintenance and repair organization (MRO) comes as the RAF prepares to take delivery of the first of 22 airlifters from the military aircraft arm of Airbus Defence and Space.
Britain gets its first A400M in September — earlier than planned due to a production slot swap with France.
The European plane maker wouldn’t confirm Flybe’s selection but said, “There is an ongoing selection process for the MRO service for the RAF A400M and it would be inappropriate to comment at this stage.”
A Flybe spokesman said the company “doesn’t comment on speculation.”
For the moment, the Flybe deal runs for just two years but it is likely to be extended, said industry executives.
Flybe operates from an engineering base at Exeter in southwest England and is best known for maintenance and repair of regional jets and turboprops.
Work on the dual civil/military certified aircraft will be undertaken at RAF’s Brize Norton air transporter base where the A400M will be stationed alongside Britain’s Airbus A330 MRTT, Boeing C-17 and Lockheed Martin C-130J fleets.
Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Turkey are signed up to buy the much-delayed aircraft as part of a pan-European collaborative effort. Malaysia is the first export customer.
Selection of the MRO is among several support initiatives falling into place as delivery of the first RAF A400M nears, including greater collaboration with France.
A British MoD spokeswoman said the slot swap was part of an Anglo-French drive to cooperate on the program.
“Collaborative opportunities between Great Britain and France aimed at delivering further financial savings, program efficiencies and/or operational effectiveness benefits, are already being exploited,” she said.
A French Air Force spokesman said the two nations are close to extending cooperation efforts on spares and for a single support contract management arrangement.
“Cooperation with the UK on spare parts and maintenance is a strong common objective within both MoDs,” said the spokesman.
“A lot of work has been done so far and much progress has allowed us to reach a common concept. Negotiations with Airbus Defence and Space are now converging and a common contract has been prepared in order to have the support services ready in September for when the UK receives their first aircraft. This relatively short duration contract, around two years, will allow both nations to measure the benefit of pooling spares and managing only one contract,” said the spokesman.
France, which already operates the aircraft, has a full in-service support arrangement with Airbus. Britain has a similar agreement in place as the first RAF delivery flight nears.
The September delivery was made possible after Britain and France agreed late last year to swap production slots on two aircraft. That swap will see the British receive aircraft slots previously earmarked by the French for September this year and April 2015, while France takes over British slots in 2018 and 2021.
Entry into service of the RAF aircraft is slated for November this year.
The delivery changes will result in a rapid build-up of British A400M numbers with the final delivery of aircraft to the British being advanced several years.
“By the end of the year, it is anticipated that the UK will have received the first five aircraft, four of which should be in service with the RAF. Final airframe delivery to the UK is now planned for March 2018,” the MoD spokeswoman said.
Britain is scheduled to spend £2.8 billion (US $4.8 billion) buying the A400M.
Airbus, along with its partner, Thales UK, also has a £502 million (US $860 million), 18-year agreement to provide training services for the A400M. ■
Pierre Tran contributed to this report from Paris.