2003 Product Support Survey

Aviation International News » August 2003
August 4, 2008, 9:25 AM

If you are looking to buy a business jet whose manufacturer provides the highest level of after-sales product support, then you would purchase one of Gulfstream’s original models, according to the results of AIN’s latest product service and support survey. The survey of 798 readers also showed that the turboprop with the best support was one that hasn’t been manufactured since 1985–the Mitsubishi MU-2.

Comparing this year’s survey with our survey done in 2000 gives a good idea of how service and support efforts as perceived by individual customers have changed for better or for worse. For example, three years ago readers selected the Bombardier Challenger as the best supported business jet. This year, Challenger support, as well as that for the Bombardier Learjet, slipped considerably (see comparison tables). On the other hand, Raytheon Aircraft support for both its jets and turboprops improved in the current survey versus that in 2000.

The score for Mitsubishi MU-2 support increased enough to displace Pilatus from the number-one position among turboprops. Occupying first place in the 2000 survey, Pilatus secured enough score this year to make for a firm second-place showing.

In addition to a numerical value of service and support, survey respondents were also asked to comment on their support experience. AIN believes the comments provided insight into why respondents voted the way they did, though they did not necessarily correlate with the numerical score. The majority of comments were negative and many generalizations, as might be expected, were based on a single experience (positive or negative). Consequently, companies that scored higher were not without their critics, and companies that scored lower also had
their fans. It’s important to remember, then, that squawks voiced here and based on a single or small number of incidents may not represent a company’s overall performance in product support and service.

Considering that virtually all of the major airframe manufacturers have resorted to making significant layoffs and consolidations and taking other difficult steps to adjust to dramatically falling sales over the last two years, it is a compliment
to them that, for the most part, they are trying to maintain an acceptable level of product support. In fact, some manufacturers, despite the pain of declining business, have made major strides in improving after-sales support. With that in mind, let’s dive into the specifics.

Bombardier

OEM support for the Challenger has worsened significantly over the last three years, judging from the numerical results of the 2000 survey compared with the results this year. From its lofty position as number one in our 2000 survey, the Montreal-based company has dropped to fourth place this year as far as Challenger operators are concerned. Bombardier also failed to do better for Learjet operators this year. Learjet support, which was in fourth place in 2000, slipped to fifth position this year. The Global Express, appearing in our survey for the first time this year, came in next to last.

Of the four Bombardier aircraft operators who added comments to their responses, three of them complained of parts problems. From one mechanic: “The changes the company made in October 2001 devastated a perfect system. Always out of stock, must go to the vendor. The only thing worse than Bombardier parts is the Montreal completion center. But our field service rep (Bruce Edgeron) is still the best and most responsive going.”

From another maintenance technician: “Bombardier parts support has been in disarray for the past few years. While support has improved this year, it still is not as good as five years ago.” In addition to troublesome parts availability, a respondent said, “Ability to take an order correctly and ship it to the correct address on time is very poor.”

But the company did receive applause from a Learjet 45 pilot: “Since purchasing a Learjet 45 new in April 2002, our company has had numerous issues with the spoiler and thrust reversers. However, Bombardier support with parts, tech rep and even reimbursement has been great.”

At press time Bombardier employees were hit with another round of layoffs–about 90 workers at the company’s aircraft finishing and flight test center in Tucson and 1,050 at aircraft facilities in Northern Ireland. The effect, if any, these additional cuts in the workforce might have on product support was not immediately known.

Cessna

While Cessna’s Citation unit has the distinction of maintaining second place in both the current and previous survey, the Wichita-based manufacturer was not without its critics. As was the case with all the manufacturers, the majority of comments (10) that were received about Citation product support were negative. Again, parts were the main topic of discussion. “For a 4,000+ in-service airplane fleet, parts and service are overly expensive,” claimed one survey responder.

That large fleet was also blamed by one Citation 650 respondent (who nonetheless said he loves his airplane) for poor service: “Cessna is too busy building too many models to support what it built previously. Replies to most calls to Cessna concerning support of our aircraft take two weeks. The company has informed us that ‘it is not a current-production aircraft.’ We really do not care to look at the current-production aircraft with a business position [like that].”

Another operator is frustrated by having to wait for replacement avionics boxes, believing that being on Cessna Proparts and Spex programs, as well as having a new aircraft warranty, should reduce the waiting time.

The domino effect of an alleged dwindling parts inventory was described by one operator: “Citation service centers have reduced their parts inventory. Now simple maintenance takes much longer due to the lack of parts. We are AOG two weeks for a part that can be changed in five minutes.” Another operator was specific about suggesting certain Citation parts that Cessna should “carry on hand.” For example, “common reusables such as starter-generators, fuel control units, brakes and so on.”

Then there was the respondent who described Citation support as “adequate.” But the most positive expression of satisfaction came from an operator who said, “Cessna takes its customer support seriously, and it shows through the company’s response times and technical knowledge of the [Citation X] product.”

One Citation operator said that Cessna’s maintenance manuals on CD-ROMs “really need to use a more up-to-date version of a Windows operating system.” Cessna CD-ROM publications currently use Windows 3.1, but a company spokesperson told AIN that it is “moving to a browser-based format, and the manuals for the Citation X will be the first on the new format, probably before the NBAA Convention in October. The manuals for the other Citations will be updated as revisions are made.”

Cessna also said it doesn’t have a specific “single source” policy preventing customers from buying parts directly from OEM suppliers, as asserted by one respondent. The company spokesperson said, “We do a lot of work with our suppliers, investing in the design and development of many parts that are supplied by vendors, and sometimes we allow them to use our tooling. So there is a lot we do that is an investment on our part. It is necessary for us to recoup some of that investment.”

AIN received no comments about Cessna’s support for its turboprop customers, but the numerical score placed the company’s turboprop support in the third position, the same score achieved in the 2000 survey.

Another goal of Cessna’s customer-support plans is to start providing Citation customers with the ability to train in an approved simulator at the time their aircraft is delivered. “Historically, we have certified simulators several months after the delivery of a brand-new product,” said Cessna manager of training Chad Martin. “With the Citation Sovereign [certification expected in the fourth quarter], we expect to have a simulator in operation before delivery of the first aircraft.”

Dassault Falcon Jet

Service and support of Falcons has apparently improved over the last three years, according to our survey, placing the French manufacturer into the number-three position from fifth three years ago. In support of these results was this comment from a flight department mechanic: “Falcon Jet parts [availabililty] and support have improved greatly over the past years. We are happy.” Another said, “Falcon spares have come a long way in the last few years.” One operator lauded Dassault Falcon Jet service as “very good in all areas,” but thought the cost of parts to be “too high.”

Working with a non-U.S. manufacturer based overseas apparently played a part in this response from a pilot: “Falcons are great airplanes, but maintenance response of French guys is extremely slow (unfortunately).”

“The bottom line on our Falcon 2000s:” wrote one pilot, “extremely dependable, cost-effective airplane. If and when they get sick (which is very rare), the support is here for us.”

Product-support efforts by Dassault Falcon Jet for both its newer and older airplanes should see a spike starting this year. The company told AIN that it has spent more than $7 million on the Wilmington, Del. service facility and FBO that it bought from Atlantic Aviation in October 2000. The Wilmington facility will log some $40 million in sales this year, according to DFJ officials, and that amount represents about a quarter of the company’s total customer-service revenues. The recent appointments of John Rahilly as v-p of national sales and marketing for DFJ’s service-center network and Todd McGahey as v-p and general manager of the DFJW service center are intended to strengthen DFJ’s commitment to customer support.

The scale of the Wilmington facility is allowing DFJ to expand its support of Falcons no longer in production, according to senior v-p of customer support Jerry Goguen. For example, the original French factory tooling for fabricating Falcon 20 wing leading edges is now in place at the Wilmington facility. The Wilmington facility will also work on Challengers and Hawkers, Goguen noted, in addition to Astras and Westwinds.

Gulfstream

Since our survey three years ago, Gulfstream acquired the former Astra and Westwind line of business jets, and with it the formidable job of taking on the service and support for those aircraft already in the field, in addition to its own original models. Our scorecard shows it is doing an acceptable job. The survey numbers from traditional Gulfstream operators moved the Savannah, Ga. airframer from third to first in the overall standing and has maintained Astra and Westwind support to at least the same levels as in 2000, according to the votes.

With the exception of one comment, all the other respondents who chose to write comments praised the company’s support. “Gulfstream has greatly improved upon support of the Astra in all areas,” reported a mechanic. “Gulfstream sets the standard for product support. Twenty-four-hour tech support is great,” said a pilot. “Our Gulfstream has had its share of problems during the year of operations,” noted another pilot, “but Gulfstream support has been excellent. Especially Rob Halderman, the Gulfstream tech rep based in Australia.” A pilot and mechanic team praised their GIV as a “very mature program with outstanding reliability.”

Some customers have no doubt benefited from Gulfstream’s airborne product support division, which since May of last year has been flying a G100 dedicated to providing parts and technicians 24/7 within the U.S. and Caribbean. For “competitive reasons,” Gulfstream would not supply details on how many times it has been used or how many hours it has flown. But the company did describe a couple of its missions.

In one, a part ordered on Friday was delivered, along with a technician, by the G100 the next day. Apparently, the customer wasn’t expecting the part so soon because when the G100 pulled up to the customer’s ramp, the hangar was closed. The Gulfstream crew had to telephone the customer to say “we got your part and we’re on your ramp.”

Gulfstream said that it delivered a new windshield within 24 hours of a call from a customer in the Caribbean whose airplane’s windshield had suffered a birdstrike. Without the dedicated aircraft, that mission would have taken three days using commercial transportation, a Gulfstream spokesman said.

Another situation involving a Gulfstream windshield ended up quite differently, according to a pilot who was dismayed to learn that there were no $26,000 GIII windshields available from Gulfstream, but that he could buy a GIV windshield (“same part number”) for $41,000. The Gulfstream spokesman conceded that there are no GIII windshields available anymore and suggested that maybe they were available directly from the supplier. PPG, manufacturer of Gulfstream windows, confirmed that there were no GIII windows available, and even if there were the company does not sell these parts directly to aircraft owners and operators.

However, “While today’s [GV] windshields are certified for the GIII and GIV,” a PPG spokeswoman told AIN, “they incorporate the latest transparency technology. Compared with the original all-glass GIII wind- shields, today’s windshields are significantly lighter, using a laminate of PPG’s Herculite II chemically strengthened glass for high strength. They also have an improved moisture seal system for longer service life.”

Additionally, PPG said its windshields incorporate a “surface seal” coating that sheds rain for “distortion-free” visibility. As a result, Gulfstream was able to eliminate windshield wipers from the GV, “enhancing the airplane’s aerodynamic performance.”

Mitsubishi, Pilatus, Piper

For the second survey in a row, the product support provided to operators of the Pilatus PC-12 and Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprops received the highest grades. Their scores were the highest among the support provided by the other turboprop models, and only one comment was submitted for either aircraft. Since most comments submitted for this survey were negative, a lack of comments might be considered a good thing.

An MU-2 pilot praised Turbine Aircraft Services (the Addison, Texas-based firm that is contracted by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan to support the MU-2 fleet): “Mitsubishi support is outstanding. The up close and personal support of Turbine Aircraft Services and the MU-2 service center backed by Mitsubishi is unbeatable.”

The pilot of a Piper Cheyenne based overseas (the commenter did not say exactly where) was disappointed in the timeliness of receiving parts: “Our Piper Cheyenne is not flying now. Needed parts take more than three months. This is the biggest problem to us. Also, parts prices are two times higher than in the U.S.” Piper remained in seventh and last position in both the current and previous surveys.

There were no comments from operators of Cessna turboprops, but the airframer’s score dropped a few notches in our current survey vs the one in 2000, keeping the company in the number-three position. There were no comments from operators of the Piper Meridian turboprop single. There were also no comments from operators of the EADS Socata TBM 700, which failed to receive enough survey responses to qualify for tabulation.

Raytheon Aircraft

It’s clear that from the point spread in our 2000 survey versus the current survey, Raytheon Aircraft (RAC) has shown a great improvement in product support. But the scores were not enough to change the company’s standing relative to competitors. For example, although Raytheon had improved scores with turboprop operators compared with the 2000 survey, the company remained in fourth position. This from a King Air 350 pilot: “With reliable and dependable maintenance, our King Air 350 is the best [aircraft] we could operate.” Over the past two years the company has taken a number of steps toward seriously improving its customer support–voted the worst in the previous two AIN surveys.

“Our goal is to have the best customer support in the industry–bar none,” said Ed Dolanski, v-p of Raytheon Aircraft’s customer- support division, in March. “We are not giving people promises; we’re showing results.”

One of the company’s first challenges was to improve its reaction time to AOG situations. In March last year RAC’s average time to return a grounded aircraft to flight status was 14 days. By the end of last year the average time to resolve an AOG problem dropped to 24 hours, RAC said. So far this year it has been averaging 16 hours, claimed Dolanski.

Improving parts availability and focusing on the right inventory and the speed at which parts are delivered to customers were also on RAC’s must-do list. An Internet-based system now lets customers access RAC’s main inventory in Dallas, as well as the company’s nearly 100 service centers worldwide for needed parts. The result: “A steady rise in planned and unplanned parts fill rates from 57 percent one year ago to 92 percent today,” RAC said. That’s a major improvement, although slightly short of the goal set when the online access program was launched in April last year. The company said then that its goal was a fill rate of 98 percent by the end of the year and to roll back the price of one part every day. Meanwhile, same-day shipping of in-stock parts increased from 66 percent to 99.9 percent, according to RAC.

Dolanski also said RAC has streamlined its warranty processes. As a result, warranty claims in backlog decreased from 3,900 to 1,500 over the last year, and claim-resolution time was reduced from 26 days to 10 days.

Most recently the company reassigned Dolanski, and possibly some of his team, from RAC’s Wichita headquarters to its Dallas parts-distribution center to “personally oversee the implementation of contemporary logistics practices with a goal of establishing the industry’s fastest, most responsive parts support capability,” RAC chairman and CEO Jim Schuster said in June. Additionally, Skip Madsen has been named v-p of operations for Raytheon Aircraft Services, replacing former RAS president John Willis, who has relocated to Houston to focus on improving service and support to fractional ownership operators and other customers in that region.

Raytheon Aircraft received the most comments of all the airframe manufacturers, and most were critical. This indicates that despite the fact that the company has improved its service and support–evidenced by the much higher numeral rating this year compared with three years ago–it still has a long way to go in the eyes of these respondents. For example, “We have operated a Hawker 700 for two years, but no Raytheon tech rep has ever called or visited us at any time. Went to the NBAA Convention in 2002 and visited Raytheon. It guaranteed a tech rep call or visit. Cannot wait to get rid of this product and go with Dassault.”

Another harsh comment from a pilot: “I can’t possibly imagine why anyone would buy a Raytheon product. They aren’t just going downhill, they’ve fallen off the cliff.” Likewise from a pilot and mechanic: “Raytheon has made it very hard to buy any of their products with such horrible support.”

The owner of a Mitsubishi Diamond believes that Raytheon has abandoned support for these older jets: “Raytheon agreed to support the Diamond to produce the Beechjet, and now they are reneging on that promise.” Also regarding the Diamond, an operator expressed dismay that Raytheon hasn’t addressed an RVSM solution for the aircraft. Raytheon Aircraft told AIN that “an RVSM STC program is in the works for older Beechjets and the Diamond, with a completion date of the fourth quarter this year or early next year.”

A satisfied customer had this comment: “Raytheon/Hawker has really turned its product support around. It is as good as, if not better than, anyone else’s.” Conversely, “Raytheon still needs to dramatically improve product and support. It took three attempts to get us the correct part, and our mechanic had to spend many hours on the telephone for just one item.”

One of the most recent expansions of the customer-support team is the hiring of Raytheon Aircraft’s dedicated customer service representative for China. Haiming Shen will be based in Beijing.

Rotorcraft

Because this is our first survey measuring turbine helicopter support, it will serve as the baseline for future comparisons. Sikorsky had the highest score, followed by Agusta, Bell and Eurocopter. There were too few replies from operators of turbine-powered rotorcraft made by MD Helicopoters, Enstrom and Schweizer to include them in this report.

Agusta, with the fewest turbine helicopters in the field, garnered an “excellent support” remark from an operator that tipped a hat to its tech rep, “Mr. Toso.”

Eurocopter, which received the lowest score, also received the most comments. The company “continues to struggle with support,” according to one operator. Another
Eurocopter customer described the SA 365 as “great, but poor product support when it comes to parts.” The EC 135 is a “good product, but it’s unfortunate that product support is still lacking–waiting more than two months for tail-rotor parts is deplorable.”

Two operators summed up Bell Helicopter support thus: “Bell Helicopter is improving. They still have a way to go,” and “Bell support is excellent.”

Engines

One of the biggest changes in the score for jet engines was by CFE (the powerplant for the Falcon 2000), which fell from first place in our 2000 survey to sixth place in the current survey, but there were no comments that might have helped to explain the poorer score. Nor where there any comments about the Rolls-Royce AE3007 for the Citation X and Embraer Legacy, which plunged from fourth place in the 2000 survey to next to last in the current report, just above GE.

Honeywell (TFE series) and Pratt & Whitney (JT12 series) were the only other jet engine providers to receive comments, and there were more positive remarks than negative ones. For example, two operators praised Honeywell for its continued support of the older Lycoming ATF series. “Honeywell continues to astound me with its outstanding support for the ATF3 engines used in our operation,” said one pilot. Said another: “Honeywell’s ATF program has a superb team of people. Its support should be an example for the industry.”

Pratt & Whitney Canada, which moved up from fifth place in 2000 to second place this year, was the recipient of this praise: “Very impressed with P&WC response to a possible AOG situation. Parts were delivered and a mobile response team was dispatched. Totally transparent to company executives [passengers].” Said another, “P&WC engine [model not designated] has lots of problems, but P&WC has stood behind it. Great so far.”

An operator of eight TFE731 engines disclosed that “we have had very good support” from Honeywell. The one dissenting comment: “Never seems to have the parts you need when you’re AOG.”

The highest-scoring jet engine manufacturer was Rolls-Royce for its Tay and Spey support, soaring from its sixth-place showing in the 2000 survey.

Of the four turboprop/turboshaft manufacturers to garner enough votes to be counted, Honeywell (TPE series) and Rolls-Royce (Model 250 series) reversed places–Honeywell is now number one and Rolls-Royce is now number three–and Pratt & Whitney Canada (PT6 and PW series) remained in second place, with Turboméca last. Despite its last-place finish, the one response for the French helicopter engine was positive: “Turbomeca [support] is outstanding.”

Rolls-Royce (Allison) customers filed only negative comments: “Allison must improve its part prices;” “Since Rolls-Royce took over Allison, support has been going downhill;” and “Tech manuals are a problem to get information from at Aviall. Only one person seems to know what’s going on.”

P&WC split a positive and a negative response: “Two months to repair an engine (PW206) for metal contamination, with no loaner engine available,” and “just overhauled PT6-135 with P&WC. Very good support.”

Avionics

One of the challenges in trying to separate avionics support from that for airframes is that many of today’s CNS systems, particularly at the higher end, are becoming a more integral part of the airframe. Therefore, support services are often a collaborative effort among the manufacturers of the aircraft and the avionics. It’s a conundrum that can add frustration to having repairs made or parts replaced, but it is a situation that will grow in significance, thus requiring manufacturers in both product lines to address problems as a team.

As in the past, we have treated avionics in this survey as a completely separate category, but as the lines between electronic boxes and the airframes in which they are installed are fast blurring, we may be forced to handle things differently in our next survey. But for now, here goes.

Twenty avionics product lines received enough votes this year to qualify to be listed.

Avidyne, which ranked ninth out of 20, received this one unflattering comment: “Don’t like service or support. All repairs have to be done at factory.”

“Leading the way” was the sole comment received in reference to Garmin, which received the second-highest score in 2000 and the third highest in the latest survey.

The MagnaStar airborne telephone system, now supported by Teledyne Controls, came in at 11th place and received two similar but negative written responses: “Repair turn times are horrible. Almost no feedback during repair, which took more than one month. Flat-rate repair cost is high for service received.” And, “Support is terrible. Turnaround times excessive. Exorbitant charges for rental units (no loaner units available). Indifferent attitude by employees we talked to while trying to get our unit fixed.”

Meggitt products (not including its S-Tec autopilot line) received this favorable comment: “We had the usual problems [not specified] with our standby display, but Meggitt did a great job in the repair.” Conversely, “Since S-Tec was bought by Meggitt, service and quality are poor. I would stay away from S-Tec products.” Meggitt and S-Tec were the two lowest-scoring avionics companies.

Although Northstar, a maker of navigation displays, scored well–five from the top–
the one comment directed at its support performance was unkind: “Worst service I’ve ever experienced.”

Honeywell and its various product lines– Bendix/King and Global Wulfsberg–received the greatest number of responses from our readers as well as the most comments. With the exception of Bendix/King, which had the same standing as in the previous survey, Honeywell and its Global Wulfsberg unit dropped noticeably.

The following respondents commented on quality and reliability of their Honeywell units, as well as on product support. “I have had two displays go out in one year in our Primus 1000. Ridiculous and expensive.” And, “Had Honeywell and Elliott Aviation install CAS-66 TCAS I. After third failure in less than three months, I was told I would have to start paying for repairs. A maintenance headache. Honeywell needs to improve.”

An operator of Global Wulfsberg telephones said he is “getting rid of Wulfsberg altogether because they are too unreliable and replacing them with Iridium satphones.”

Honeywell must consider Australia “not worth supporting,” said an operator from Down Under. “Turnaround times on components totally unacceptable.” Said a pilot in the U.S.: “Trying to get a Honeywell avionics rep is like pulling teeth.”

Three operators commented on good service from Honeywell. Said one pilot, “Our King Silver Crown equipment was state-of-the-art in 1986. The equipment is getting old, but still reliable and easy to keep operational.” From another pilot: “Honeywell has been doing a good job working with me through Garrett Aviation Services.”

Comments about Rockwell Collins (in the number-six position in both the 2000 and 2003 surveys) were a mixed bag. One operator claimed the company “would rather not even admit that this is its product. This autopilot flight director is not up to Collins’ standards.” In reference to Airshow, now a Collins product, an operator praised the cabin display system “when it works.” However, “support and reliability have to be the worst in the industry.” As we’ve noted before, overall performance is often judged by individual experiences: “Collins avionics have been very reliable and tech support is great.”

Universal Avionics, which topped the list of avionics support in the 2000 survey and came in fourth in the current survey, received just one comment, which was positive. “Response from Universal on any question is top drawer. FMS UNS1-D/TAWS installed by Garrett more than a year ago–zero defects on workmanship and operational reliability. Training at Universal in Tucson equals ease of operation.”

UPS Technologies also received just one comment, though it was unflattering. It was from an operator of a II Morrow system, which UPS Technologies acquired. “We’re flying around with a five-year-old database because it was never produced in house and the company that did it [the original II Morrow] is out of business. So UPS is not going to find another vendor or do it itself. With that kind of product-support attitude, does the company really think we’re going to buy any of its new stuff?”

Conclusion

We’ve covered a lot of manufacturers and products in this survey and have made an attempt to provide the data as thoroughly and objectively as possible. The method of presenting comments and scoring is not intended to malign any manufacturer or product. It is our hope that manufacturers might gain some insight into how some customers–albeit the most vocal–feel about their after-sales support and use this information to help them in their continuing efforts to improve support and service programs.

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