Tokyo: Michimasa Fujino began working on Honda Motor Co's aviation project 27 years ago at a hangar in Mississippi. Next year, Fujino, now president of the aircraft unit, says the project may finally get off the ground.
If so, Tokyo-based Honda would become the first newcomer to get US approval in the $21-billion business-jet market since 2006. That would pit the car maker against market leaders Textron Inc's Cessna and Brazil's Embraer SA, who have fended off threats from companies such as Bill Gates-backed Eclipse Aviation, which sought bankruptcy protection five years ago.
Though delivery of the HondaJet hasn't started, Fujino said he had clinched two to three years of orders for the $4.5-million plane and signaled the business will turn profitable before the end of the decade. The seven-seater plane, which Fujino calls a "flying sports car" or "flying Acura," will be 15 per cent more fuel efficient, have roomier cabin space and fly 10 per cent faster than comparable aircraft, he said.
"There are no newcomers to business aviation, only cautionary tales," said George Tsopeis, vice president at Montreal-based Zenith Jet, an aviation advisory firm. "If Honda manages to bring the HondaJet to market, that alone will be an accomplishment."
Wearing aviator-style prescription glasses, Fujino said he expects the unconventionally designed jet - the engines are on top of the wings - to get clearance from the US Federal Aviation Administration by next year. He has said that before. Honda has delayed the debut of the plane every year since targeting deliveries in 2010 for reasons ranging from difficulties procuring components to parts damage caused by ice. The company says it's getting closer, in May announcing that its fifth FAA-conforming HondaJet successfully completed its first flight.
To get permission from the FAA, a manufacturer must demonstrate that the plane meets US regulations on everything from the strength of the wings to how it lands in a crosswind. Most of the process is conducted behind closed doors because the test data and designs supplied by aircraft manufacturers are considered proprietary and confidential.
Certification is a "long and arduous process" that typically involves testing four to five aircraft for 2,000 flight hours, Tsopeis said. Once a company gets the nod from the FAA, it becomes easier to win certification from other aviation jurisdictions, he said.
The FAA doesn't comment on pending aircraft certification, it said in an e-mailed statement. Representatives at Cessna and Embraer didn't respond to emails seeking comment. The start of deliveries would fulfill the wishes of the company's late founder, Soichiro Honda, who died in 1991. Though the carmaker doesn't expect the business to be a big profit contributor, it has pursued the project partly as a tribute to the founder, Chairman Fumihiko Ike said in an interview this month.
In the fiscal year ended March, automobiles and motorcycles accounted for 92 percent of Honda's revenue and 73 percent of operating profit.
For Fujino, the jet's debut would come more than three decades after the company assigned him, then 26, to be the fifth member of a team dedicated to figuring out how to make planes - a task he recalls seeming like such a dead end that he initially turned it down.
"I joined Honda to make cars," he said. "But it's a company order so regardless of what I wanted, I was moved to the plane department. So I figured I would do the best I could."