The Oct. 8 strike by members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) at 's plant in Wichita is merely the latest challenge in the Model 85's development saga.
Launched in October 2007, the midsized, Mach 0.82, 3,000-nm aircraft—the largest Learjet yet and the first constructed of composites–was to be jointly developed with Grob, a German company well known for its composite trainers. However, the program was set back when Grob declared bankruptcy in 2008, at which point Bombardier decided to bring all development work in-house.
Subsequently, the Montreal-based OEM switched the composites technology from the wet layup used by Grob to the prepreg material more prevalent in U.S. industry and familiar to the. Several different composites are involved, but the material system selected for the overall airframe is a low-pressure, oven-cured carbon fiber, including sandwiched sections.
To accommodate the new manufacturing process, Bombardier decided to build a new 185,000-sq.-ft. facility at its airport campus in Queretaro, Mexico, where the aircraft's forward and aft fuselage, nose, tail cone, vertical and horizontal stabilizers and wings are molded and large sections mated. However, as all that was underway, the business jet market—and particularly the light and medium jet market—collapsed, and has yet to recover. But Bombardier soldiered on.
While the composite construction offers no weight savings, Bombardier says the material provides a weight-to-strength ratio superior to aluminum, largely eliminates corrosion concerns, reduces parts count, results in a super-smooth and low-drag exterior, allows for bigger and better placed windows, and maximizes interior space.
The completed sections are then trucked 1,400 mi. north to Learjet's main plant at Mid-Continent Airport in Wichita, where the whole aircraft is assembled, and thePro Line Fusion avionics suite, Pratt & Whitney Canada PW307B engines with full-authority digital electronic control (Fadec), and interior are installed. It is here that the exterior is painted and buyers take delivery of their $19.67 million aircraft.
The flight deck, an adaptation of the Bombardier Vision platform on the Global line, features a three-screen (15-in.) panel, dual flight-management systems with graphical flight planning, auto throttles and dual cursor controls.
Meanwhile, the cabin measures 5 ft. 11 in. dropped aisle to ceiling and 6 ft. 1 in. across, and features: double club, fully berthing seats (one can be switched out for a three-place divan); galley; full aft lavatory, lots of storage; an Ethernet-based cabin management system; and entertainment systems with XM radio, bulkhead and eight pop-up monitors, and iPhone/iPad control.
The fuselage for the first flight-test aircraft was delivered to Wichita in late August. The company declines to say when that initial flight will occur, but some time in 2013 seems likely. The company is also mum about orders, but the first several units will go to Flexjet, its Dallas-based fractional aircraft ownership operation, which has confirmed nearly 50 shares with deposits in hand. It anticipates delivery of its first Lear 85 in the last quarter of 2013.
The years-long slump in the business jet market has resulted in some unsold inventory, and Bombardier has announced it was “pausing” manufacture of the Learjet 60, with no certainty that the line will ever be restarted. However, if the market for a Model 60-sized aircraft returns, the Model 85's platform could likely be adapted to serve the need.
And despite market doldrums, Bombardier's investment in the light end goes beyond the Lear 85 to include the Learjet 70 and 75, which are follow-ons to the Models 40XR and 45XR, and respectively priced at $11.1 million and $13.5 million. Certification and first delivery are expected in early 2013. In May, Bombardier reported orders and commitments for more than 50 of the new models.
Meanwhile, Bombardier is further developing its top-end offerings with the intercontinental Global 7000 and 8000, and is expanding its Montreal facilities to include a new Global delivery center and larger completions center. The $68.9 million Global 7000 is targeted for service entry in 2016, and the shorter Global 8000, priced at $66.3 million, the following year.
To accommodate the Lear 85, construction of production flight, paint and customer delivery facilities will put another 242,000 sq. ft. under the roofs in Wichita. And in Queretaro, what will be a 234,000-sq.-ft. building is under construction for the manufacture of assemblies for the growing Global family.
All that activity in a down market has had an impact on head count. Bombardier employs more than 1,500 workers in Queretaro, approximately 600 of whom are dedicated to the Lear 85 program. Meanwhile, employees number about 3,000 in Wichita, an increase of nearly 50% since 2008, and it plans to add another 600 as Learjet 85 production ramps up there.
The IAM represents 825 of the company's Wichita workforce, and 79% of the voting union members supported the strike. Central to that decision, the union says, was Bombardier's offer for a wage increase of 4% over the next five years, with no increase in the first year; the elimination of two popular health maintenance organizations; and concerns that alternative plans represent a 110% increase in costs.
Bombardier says it was disappointed by the rejection of its five-year contract proposal, but plans to continue negotiations to resolve outstanding issues. In the interim, the manufacturer says it has taken steps to minimize “disruption to the production line, its customers and the community.”