Monday, 25 May 2009

Faith in the Filipino

Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer

As I write this, there are 10 Filipino mechanics undergoing training in Germany to prepare for the setting up of manufacturing facilities in the Clark Special Economic Zone for the Dornier S-Ray 007.

The aircraft is described as an “amphibian multi-purpose aircraft,” designed to land and take-off from both land and sea. Its design heritage is impeccable, based on the “Libelle,” one of Germany’s most successful flying boats, designed in 1921 by Claude Dornier. Dornier, an engineer, first worked on the development of lightweight metal aircraft then expanded his and his company’s activities into space exploration, electronics, information services, textiles, energy and medical technology, including the use of sound waves to dissolve kidney stones.

This same restless curiosity, creativity and innovation have been harnessed, almost 86 years later, by Claude’s grandson, Iren Dornier, who with his team designed the S-Ray 007. Publicity materials for the aircraft claim that the “design brief for the S-Ray 007 dictated intelligent engineering with … style, that could not be anything else but Dornier; it is simple, functional, understated, beautiful -- the aircraft for a passionate pilot to fly the soul.”

It’s easy enough to dismiss this as so much press relations pap if not for photos of the S-Ray in its website that draw oohs and aahs with just one glimpse. The photos, of the initial two-seater model, display an aircraft with a distinct streamlined futuristic profile. From some angles, it even reminds one of a dolphin, because of the elevated nose on which the single propeller is mounted, or even a sting-ray, which is the plane’s design inspiration because of the graceful sweep of its body. “It looks like a plane out of the Jetsons!” I exclaimed when I first saw the photos.

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But what makes this story relevant for Filipinos is that the S-Ray 007, including bigger six-seater and 14-19-seater models, a truly world-class, stylish and groundbreaking aircraft, will ultimately be “made in the Philippines.” Nick Gitsis, Dornier’s business partner, says that once the 10 Filipinos, long-time mechanics and engineers with Seair, finish their training in Germany, they will be flying home to set up manufacturing facilities in Clark.

The S-Ray 007 (the “007,” admits Gitsis, was Iren Dornier’s concession to conceit) promises not just a source of employment and revenue for the country, but also a step up in technology and a sharp rise in our engineers’ learning curve.

According to the website, the S-Ray is to be made from “modern, lightweight carbon and composite [materials] … [providing] a comparatively high resistance against fatigue assuring as well proportional payload and range and terminate recent corrosion problems on aluminum structures.”

Even more interesting, the S-Ray “contains electric driven tricycle landing gear, which can also be lowered inside the water to move up or down a ramp. The partial free nose wheel reacts as a dampener on water collision in its retracted position. A water rudder assists to control and maneuver the aircraft even at slow speeds.”

On the practical side, “the aircraft was built to be transportable in a container van or on a trailer, where the wing can be folded (by) 90-degrees within seconds. (This) versatility allows the aircraft, for example, to be transported on (the) deck of a ship, where it can be lowered by a crane on a single hook and released for take off in the water or vice-versa.”

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It’s certainly a heady thought: the country as the site of manufacturing facilities for a revolutionary plane that combines high-tech material, innovative engineering and stylish detailing -- and put together with Filipino skill and ingenuity.

The coming location of the Dornier S-Ray 007 facilities is also testimony to the faith of both Dornier and Gitsis in the country and its people. The two, together with Filipino Tomas Lopez, founded South East Asian Airlines (SEAIR) in 1995 with the aim of opening up air routes to resort destinations, starting with Caticlan (the jump-off point to the resort island of Boracay) and Palawan, and basing the new airline in Clark. Today, SEAIR is 12 years old, making it the second-oldest airline in the country, serving 18 sectors, including some destinations which had been abandoned and serving the transport needs of the populace there.

In 2004, SEAIR passed the one million passengers mark, and offers an average of up to 29,000 seats a month, flying an average of 19,000 passengers to Boracay a month.

So successful has SEAIR become that it has attracted serious offers from new potential partners. A Chinese-Filipino in the food business has already made public his bid to buy into the airline and attain majority ownership.

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But after successfully developing the resort market and bringing in the most flights (and therefore, the most passengers) to Boracay, SEAIR these days finds itself beleaguered by larger airlines eating into the profitable Caticlan route.

Where before only SEAIR and Asian Spirit could fly passengers into Caticlan with their small airplanes that the small airstrip could accommodate, Air Philippines, an affiliate of Philippine Airlines, recently inaugurated its flights to Caticlan.

Gitsis adopts a wait-and-see attitude for the moment, but is most concerned about being undercut by their larger competitors. “They could certainly offer much lower fares, which could force us into cutting our fares as well. They have the capital that will allow them to survive on such small margins, but we are certainly threatened,” Gitsis says.

But while the bigger airlines eat into the market SEAIR basically created, Gitsis says it would only be fair for them to take on the unprofitable routes that SEAIR currently serves, as their way of serving the Filipino people.

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