De Havilland

De Havilland pauses production, to move out of Downsview

500 people will be laid off and De Havilland will search for a new home when production resumes

De Havilland production
A Westjet De Havilland Dash 8-400 departs Vancouver International Airport January 14, 2021 (Brett Ballah).

Canadian aircraft manufacturer De Havilland announced Wednesday it will pause production of its Dash 8-400 aircraft. Some 500 people will be laid off.

“We are sensitive to the impact that a production pause will have on our employees, and are committed to treating everyone with transparency and respect,” said Longview Aviation Capital Executive Chairman David Curtis in a statement. Longview owns De Havilland, along with Viking Aircraft out of Victoria, which produces the Twin Otter. Longview bought the Dash 8 programme from Bombardier in 2019. “This decision is no reflection on the quality of our team, which has performed exceedingly well through the disruptions of the past year.”

In response to plummeting demand, airlines have cut routes, laid off staff, and grounded thousands of aircraft. One of Canada’s largest Dash 8 operators, Porter Airlines, has not flown in almost a year. That has made selling new aircraft virtually impossible.

“While industry conditions remain challenging, we are looking to the future by enhancing our ability to support Dash 8 operators, and taking the necessary organizational steps to ensure we are ready to meet industry demand as the aviation industry recovers,” said Curtis.

The company delivered 11 aircraft in 2020, said Curtis, despite a six-week shutdown then the pandemic struck. De Havilland will finish producing a small backlog of aircraft before the final airframe is rolled out of its Downsview plant later this year. The backlog was estimated to be 17 aircraft in mid-January. De Havilland does not routinely publish order or backlog data.

Moving out of Downsview

When that final aircraft rolls off the line, it will be the end De Havilland’s Downsview factory. De Havilland has built planes in Toronto since 1928, and at its current building since the mid-1950s. Former owner Bombardier sold the site in 2018 and De Havilland has no choice but to move out.

Given the pause in production, there is less pressure to find a new site. Though the company indicated production will remain in Canada. There are 161 Dash-8s registered in Canada, from older -100 models to the newest -400s. Federal records show two newly-built Dash 8-400s were registered in February.

“The transition from Downsview is a step in the planned evolution of the Dash 8 platform away from its former owner,” said Curtis. “While this evolution is taking place against the backdrop of unprecedented industry circumstances, we see a bright future for De Havilland Canada and the Dash 8.”

Part of his optimism may be driven by economics. It is exceedingly expensive and risky to produce a ‘clean sheet’ design. The government bailed out De Havilland for more than half a billion dollars when Dash-8 production started in the early 1980s And Curtis has said in the past he could not envision a new aircraft design emerging in the regional sector.

Instead, De Havilland will focus on supporting aircraft already in service. That includes developing cargo conversions and upgrades to help struggling operators maximize revenues.


Bringing back old models

Curtis is no stranger to restarting unused production lines. In 2010, Viking Air flew its first Twin Otter, after a 20-year production hiatus.

“We are also the only company to have successfully re-launched an out-of-production aircraft,” said Curtis. “We are fully committed to the Dash 8 and intend to further enhance its capabilities and performance, and remain a leader of the regional aircraft market of the future.”

The aerospace sector’s struggles have caught the attention of national politicians. The standing committee on Finance, in its pre-budget consultations, recommended “direct funding to Canada’s aerospace manufacturing sector, especially [small and medium enterprises] operating in this industry facing bankruptcy or those that are targets of foreign acquisition.”

Curtis and Longview did not participate in the hearings. Nor has he made a public request for government aid. Instead, he expects demand for the Dash 8 to return once the industry recovers from the pandemic.

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