Half an hour into our interview, Jean-Michel Jacob excuses himself. “I have to go. I’m sorry.”
As Jacob prepares to receive VIP clients, his public relations minder chimes in with an apology, offering to take down the rest of my questions and field them when he is in between meetings.
It is unusual for a Frenchman to ditch formalities and bow out prematurely from a media interview, but the President of Dassault Aviation Asia-Pacific has bigger headwinds to battle than a slew of questions from this journalist.
Here is a man who navigated the French aerospace giant through three decades of Bulls and Bears, past the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008. But nothing prepared him – or the world for that matter – for Covid-19, which was just beginning to curl its invisible grip around the aviation industry when we met.
The Peak met with Jacob in February at the Singapore Airshow, a fortnight after China scrambled to contain the virus multiplying in its backyard. Scientists knew little about its origins, methods of transmission or suite of symptoms at the time, but none of that mattered. Covid-19 had already landed here.
As headlines around the world lit up with news of Singapore’s rising infection rates – then second only to that of China’s – the city-state’s reputation went from that of a global travel hub to one as a virus hotspot. Seventy exhibitors pulled out of the air show before its gates even opened on the first day.
On the tarmac, other business jet manufacturers, including Canada’s Bombardier and Gulfstream Aerospace of the US, were visibly absent. All the better for Dassault, which unveiled a mock-up of its long- range Falcon 6X business jet for the first time in the Asia-Pacific.
According to Jacob, size matters more than ever now. “Twenty years ago, customers were buying smaller aircraft. Today, they want something that gives them the ability to carry more people, more comfortably. The plane is now an extension of their homes and offices.”
At 2.58m wide and 1.98m high, the company claims the 6X boasts the tallest and widest cabin of any purpose- built business jet. Dassault further amplifies that feeling of spaciousness by incorporating 30 windows that run the length of the 25.7m masterpiece and a skylight that lets natural light into the galley – a first for business aviation.
At first glance, its interior appears almost modest when pitted against flashier offerings from other manufacturers, but Jacob is quick to point out that Dassault isn’t trading on opulence. The luxury, besides the premium of an expanded real estate, seems to lie in the invisible details such as a filtration and circulation system that refreshes the air every two minutes, and the remarkably low noise levels in the cabin. The aim is simple: transform the plane into a lean, mean business machine for the C-Suite executive.
With a range of 10,186km, the twin-jet can fly from Washington to New York, before continuing to Geneva without having to refuel. Flights between Singapore and Moscow (8,415km) or Beijing and San Francisco (9,497km) are also possible.
The first of these jets are slated for delivery in 2022 and Dassault Aviation Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier expects a major thrust in demand from the Asia-Pacific market, which should add to the 100-plus Falcons already based in the region. In 2019, the company recorded 40 Falcon orders valued at 2.308 million Euros (S$3.586 million).
Technological innovations have consistently upheld the 104-year-old company’s footing in a highly volatile industry and the linchpin to its survival in these uncertain times. As the aviation industry faces mounting pressure from environmental activists, engineering heft while maximising fuel efficiency has become par for the course.
So, it’s not surprising that Dassault’s engineers have incorporated energy-efficient engines into its flagship Falcon 8X to reduce NOx emissions by 30 per cent while reworking wing architecture to reduce drag. As the only business jet manufacturer that builds military aircraft, it has long parlayed technology developed for fighter jets into applications for its civil jets. Pilots have no time to fiddle with manual controls while executing complicated flight manoeuvres at incredible speeds, so Dassault developed a digital flight control system for its Rafale multirole fighter aircraft, which it mapped over to the civil 8X jet.
Then there is the Dassault FalconEye with an advanced vision system that combines data-driven terrain mapping with thermal and low-light camera images into a single view. When pilots encounter poor weather conditions such as fog or snow, the technology enables them to navigate without compromising on safety.
All this is a far cry from what Jacob remembers on his maiden flight. “I was five and travelling with my parents on a flight from Paris to the Ivory Coast. The aircraft was a Douglas DC-8-32. In those days, aircraft couldn’t go so high. Our flight was diverted to Liberia, more than 1,000km away, due to poor visibility caused by fog.”
(Related: Getting through Covid-19 psychologically)