Delays for New Planes Suggest It Actually Is Rocket Science

Bombardier's CSeries Courtesy Bombardier

This has not been a happy summer in the world of airplane development. Last week, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries aircraft division announced a delay of more than a year for its new 70- to 90-seat regional MRJ jet. Those planes are eventually headed to the U.S., with orders from Utah-based SkyWest and Trans States Airlines, which makes regional flights for United and US Airways.

News of the  Japanese jet’s delay came less than a month after Bombardier announced the latest delay for getting its new CSeries airplane to a first flight, which had originally been set for December 2012. The $3.5 billion creation of the CSeries—the largest airplane Bombardier has ever built—has suffered three delays since November, and the jet’s entry into commercial service could be pushed into 2015, more than a year later than was original planned.

A third player in the market, state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac) is more than seven years behind schedule in trying to launch its new ARJ21, a 78- to 90-seat regional jet that may not begin commercial flights until next year. Comac has spent more than two years trying to resolve weight and fatigue issues with the plane’s wing, among other issues. The company is also trying to develop a larger plane, the C919, which will seat around 160 passengers, depending upon the cabin configuration. That plane has also been postponed and isn’t likely to fly until at least 2018.

Delays have plagued nearly every new aircraft in recent years, from Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner to the two-story Airbus A380. The problems point to the advanced technologies that engineers are incorporating into new designs to help airlines cut operating costs. The new jets are packed with composite fiber materials to be lighter, while their engines are next-generation designs that burn less fuel. The increased complexity can lead to delays across multiple systems or parts, says Scott Hamilton, managing director of Leeham, an aviation consultancy. “If there is an issue with any one of these, there is a ripple effect on other components or systems,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Further compounding the Mitsubishi and Comac delays: Both are constructing their first completely new airplanes after years of merely supplying parts to other manufacturers. That learning curve, Hamilton wrote, “is far different than being an industrial partner or a supplier, and the first time you do anything as complex as a new airplane is a real bitch.”

Even as they woo customers with the benefits of new technology, airplane manufacturers have a poor record when it comes to estimating engineering time frames. Boeing, for example, said in 2003 that its 7E7 Dreamliner—later renamed the 787—would require four years to develop and be flying commercially in 2008. That schedule proved ambitious: Launch customer ANA got its first 787 in late 2011.

After more than nine years of development, Bombardier is working feverishly to get the CSeries to its first flight, a seminal event for every new airplane that typically marks the start of extensive, mandatory flight testing before regulators can certify a new model. The CSeries flight tests are expected to last a year but could possibly stretch longer. The plane will come in two initial versions, with either 110 or 149 seats, and pits Bombardier in direct competition with narrow-body jets from Boeing and Airbus. CSeries sales have been sluggish to date, with only 177 orders. Indiana-based Republic Airways Holdings is the largest buyer, with 40.

“What we have to do is very complex,” Bombardier Chief Executive Officer Pierre Beaudoin told analysts on an Aug. 1 earnings call. Engineers are contending with “a lot of small stuff,” he said. “That means that what we have planned in a day—sometimes it take three, four, five days and, of course, delays first flight. And like we have said to our team, it’s not a question of rushing. This has to be done very well.”

David Newman, an analyst with Cormark Securities, says most of the plane makers are “breaking new ground” with a new generation of more fuel-efficient engines, composite structures like those used in the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, and far greater use of computers and electrical power for flight controls. “This has created challenges in launching aircraft on time and on budget as new technology is digested,” he wrote in an e-mail.