The last flying Dutchman – The Fokker 100

Short haul aviation in the 1970s was dominated by piston engine props, and the first generation of short haul jet liners, such as the likes of the Caravelle, DC9 and the BAC1-11 were regarded to be a group of aircraft and manufacturers more akin to today’s “sort haul narrow-body” segment. Fokker entered this market with the F.28 Fellowship in 1969, on the back of its success with the Fokker F.27.

During the 1970s, especially towards the back end of the decade a number of technological advancements led to more fuel economic engines with more thrust and improvements in aerodynamics design while market liberalization also crept into aviation, paving the way for the eventual deregulation of the US domestic market in 1979.

Deregulation led to a seismic shift in airlines’ ability to stimulate demand and to compete more efficiently. Subsequently airlines could serve more routes leading to the otherwise already attractive point-to-point routes’ numbers’ increase. This led to a growing demand for more cost effective dedicated regional jets. Subsequently, Fokker Aircraft’s decision was to capitalize on the recent changes on two front:

  1.  Design the successor of its original civilian success story, the F.27
  2.  Develop the replacement (through some upgauging) for its more recent design, the F.28 Fellowship.

 

There are multiple examples from more recent history, from multiple North American aircraft manufacturers, especially from a relatively small manufacturer why embarking on two major projects could be a bad idea – more on the gloom later! Fokker Aircraft announced it would go ahead with the F100 in 1983.

Regional aircraft timeline

Selected regional aircraft timeline 1965-2000

Before we go into more detail about the aircraft, I compiled the graph above to give the reader the context of how the regional aircraft market looked at the time. At first glance, the number of independent manufacturers in the market is noticeably higher than today. This meant more intensified competition before the consolidation drive of the OEMs. Secondly, prior to deregulation in the states in the 80s and eventually in Europe in the 90s aircraft “gauges” were viewed differently from today. Small commuter aircraft up to 30 seats served the backbone of regional aviation, while aircraft of 100 seat and above would be viewed more as today’s narrow-body segment. This may seem like a minute detail, but in the case of Fokker 100 it turned out to be a crucial item.

THE AIRCRAFT

Considering the overall competitive design of the F.28 it served as the base for the aircraft that came to be known as the Fokker F100. The airframe was stretched from the F.28 4000, making the F100 able to accommodate 122 passengers in its least comfortable layout, compared to the 85 offered by the F.28 4000. Due to the stretch the aircraft also gained an additional 5% of overall cargo space.

Aside from the stretch, the wing span was increased combined with an overall more aerodynamic wet area, led to claims of the airframe alone being 30% more efficient than the original design of the F28. The wing design in fact was so efficient that it exceeded even internal expectations and targets. There was a major cockpit overhaul in which the F100’s cockpit received an EFIS glass cockpit. The aircraft was (and is) CATIIIB equipped, meaning the aircraft needed a mere 50m horizontal visibility upon landing, potentially opening up many fog and poor visibility prone airports for continuous regional operations with a jet. Its avionics put it in a league of its own compared to its competitors at the time.

Fokker cockpits compared
Fokker cockpits compared

Further back on the aircraft, its Rolls Royce Spey engines were replaced by Rolls Royce Tays. Not only did this lead to increased thrust, but the aircraft also met Stage 3 noise limits.

The overall design changes and improvements added up were quite significant as the overall fuel burn was 5% better on the F100 than its predecessor, while on a per seat measure, the improvement was 50%*.

While the F100 didn’t replace the F28 like-for-like as it offered 25%+ more seats for airlines, it was moving with the “upgauging” trend of the time. This is important as the low cost per seat of the Fokker 100 would make it able to stimulate regional markets more effectively. As mentioned, the airframe and engine combined made the aircraft burn less fuel on a like for like trip, hence the cost advantage didn’t just come from increasing the number of seats. The below graph shows the comparison against its predecessor and competitors at the time.

Fuel burn comparison
Fuel burn comparison – Aviation Elevated

While so far the Fokker 100 looks competitive based on the leap from the F28 and relatively well in line on fuel burn with its competitors, it’s market access, i.e. physical ability to land in and reach certain places was significantly impacted compared to the Bae 146.

Operating specs - Aviation Elevated
Operating specs – Aviation Elevated

INTRODUCTION AND INITIAL SUCCESS

After the first two prototypes made their initial flights in late 1986 and early 1987 respectively, the first aircraft was delivered to the launch customer, Swiss air in February 1988. In total 278 aircraft were produced, with key orders coming from American Airlines (75 aircraft), US Airlines (40 aircraft). American’s order also included 75 aircraft on option, which combined with firm orders valued the order at 3.1billion USD, making the order the largest ever placed with a Dutch company. Other orders included Swiss Air, KLM, Inter Canadian, BRANIFF, ILFC among others, but the majority of orders flowed in before the 90s.

Fokker firm orders for the F100 & F70 by year
Fokker firm orders for the F100 & F70 by year

The aircraft was well liked by pilots and passengers alike. It was well equipped and was one of the first all-glass cockpit regional aircrafts, helping to reduce pilot workload. The aircraft could climb as high as 37,000ft helping to reduce fuel consumption and providing more options to avoid weather.

The cabin was laid out in a 2-3 setting, not eliminating middle seats entirely. Despite this it was a great hit with passengers due to the smooth and quiet rides thanks to its tail mounted engines. The Fokker 100 offered cabin layouts from 81 to 119 seats in a fully maximized setting, although the 119 seats were still at 31” inch pitch, which is a luxury compared to today’s short to mid-haul 29” pitch on mainliners.

Carpatair F100 interior
Carpatair F100 interior

As we have touched on, the F100 wasn’t a direct replacement for the F28, nor did it have the most competitive short field performance. By 1993 the F28 numbers in the world have started to dwindle, but with 213 still in service this was still a loyal market for Fokker to target.

In order to convert the remaining F28s and create a family with more competitive field performance, Fokker shortened the F100, and developed the Fokker 70 to go after this market. The aircraft’s landing and take off distances were improved significantly alongside its economics. Fuel burn per seat against the F28-2000 was improved by circa 30%. In fact it was so efficient, Ford became the first customer of the F70 in a corporate layout. Now Fokker had a family planned, with which they could target the 70-120 seat segment, with great customer experience great economics and a fully equipped cockpit. Furthermore, the Fokker 70 thanks to its tail mounted airbrake was certified to land at London’s notorious London City Airport where an aircraft needs to demonstrate the ability to achieve -7.5 degrees on the glideslope (-5.5 for the glide slope +2 degrees for clearance)

Airline customers for the F70 included KLM, BMI, MESA, Austrian, KLM, Malev. The majority of F70 customers were Europe based, with only two F70 ever making it to the States.

CHANGING CLIMATES

The Fokker 100 was a revolutionary aircraft for the regional sector. It had an avionics suite like no other at the time. It had a great cabin and had competitive operational performance. How comes the aircraft didn’t sell so well?

If there is such a thing as a corporate perfect storm, Fokker was in the middle of it in the 90s.

Fokker’s corporate structure at the time was arguably political. When Fokker went ahead with the simultaneous development of two new aircraft programs, the F50 and the F100 due to the investment requirement required for two projects of their size, Fokker almost went bankrupt. The lifeline to Fokker came in the form of government intervention, with 212million guilders at the time. But it didn’t come without strings attached. Fokker was required to look for a strategic partnership, BAE or DASA (Daimler Aerospace) being the two candidates. Of the two DASA was selected.

DASA Fokker tie-up '93
DASA Fokker tie-up ’93

DASA at the time owned the Dornier programs and was involved in the development of what was to become the Eurocopter 135 and owned the Dornier aircraft programs. The sequence of this is important as the Dornier lines during the 90s also came under pressure. So what went so wrong?

In the early and mid 90s the dollar exchange rate was extremely low. This was a huge challenge for European manufacturers as their revenue is in USD from airlines, but their costs are a mix of their home currencies and their suppliers’ currencies. In other words, business can be great, but their revenue streams are still taking a large hit. However, the problem was that after Fokker’s initial success business wasn’t booming the more into the 90s we go. Due to financial constraints production rates were cut to 40 aircraft a year, which hurt customer opinion and was a sign of uncertainty around Fokker. In addition, Fokker never managed to successfully renegotiate with suppliers and reduce the unit cost of its aircraft.

Furthermore, Bombardier and Embraer started to seriously think about becoming key players alongside Boeing and Airbus, even if in the minor leagues. Bombardier particularly was already pushing the smaller CRJ200 since 1991 in Europe. This led to increased competition in the market, plus the CRJ200 was an aircraft that could be further stretched. While there were plans for a “F130” to stretch the aircraft, the capital requirements and operational challenges made this a short-lived idea.

The F130 could have been cruicial due to the shifting marketplace for aircraft. If I haven’t yet lost the reader entirely, you’ll recall that deregulation hit Europe in the mid-late 90s. Prior to deregulation major carriers were mainly interested in mainline aircraft, i.e. 100 seats plus, which was owned by Airbus and Boeing, and their families offered seat numbers as low as 130. It’s a tough battle to pick for small independent manufacturers. While there was pressure on regional manufacturers on seat numbers as low as 100+, the challange became that with deregulation mainline carriers became much more interested in the “commuter” class. At the time these aircraft were Saabs, ERJs, etc sub 50 seats. Through the vertical integration of the commuter airlines and their fleets, majors had to drive a clear distinction between their regional fleets and mainline fleets in order to satisfy pilots unions. This at the time left Fokker in a no-mans land in both Europe and America, in the latter it was also penalised by scope clause. As such it is my belief that Fokker was 10 years too early for its market, but I welcome discussions in the comments below.

The combination of Fokker’s existing woes by the mid-90s coupled with unfavourable exchange rates and increasingly competitive marketplace led to Fokker losing USD 407m by 1995, which was already a 30% increase on the losses from the year before. By 1996 the writing was on the wall. Fokker was losing money and there was no way to turn the taps. It’s parent-partner, DASA plagued by its earlier Dornier acquisition led to its finance director describing the Dornier deal as “The most miserable contract we have ever completed”. As such DASA was unable to offer financial assistance to Fokker when the Dutch government had already turned its back on Fokker. In January 1996 DASA cut its ties with Fokker. While there were rumours immediately after of Bombardier stepping in, Bombardier announced its lack of interest in February and Fokker folded in March 1996.

Questions have been asked whether a BAE tie up would have provided more secure ground for Fokker’s survival. Realistically, BAE much like its Germanic counterparts on the other side of the channel was in difficulties, having to perform the largest corporate write off in British history in 1992.

FOKKERS TODAY

Due to its success in the market in 2019 there were still 46 F100s and 9 F70s flying around.

Fokker’s aftermarket division remains active and continues to hold the type certification for the aircraft. The aircraft remains in service due to its competitive operating costs and attractive acquisition cost as a secondhand aircraft.

Many of the remaining examples operate in Australia with low annual utilisations where they are connecting remote communities and serve corporate contracts with remote mines, where an old, yet beautiful aircraft such as the F100 can go into a slow retirement doing what it does best, offering comfortable, affordable regional connectivity.

Please find below a bonus for reading the whole article, an original marketing video from Fokker.

Sources:

Article photo: Johan Knijn Airliners.net

http://www.flugzeuginfo.net/

Modern Airliners and Civil Aviation Aircraft.


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http://www.airplanemart.com/
https://www.aerospace-technology.com/
https://www.easa.europa.eu/
https://www.wikiwand.com/

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