A New Jet From Canada Takes on Boeing and Airbus, Very (Very) Slowly

Bombardier's CSeries jet Photograph by Clement Sabourin/AFP via Getty Images

Bombardier’s long slog to field a rival to the popular narow-body airplanes from Boeing and Airbus has claimed a casualty: its sales chief. Chet Fuller, the former GE Aviation executive and U.S. Navy pilot tasked with finding buyers for the new CSeries jet, will leave the company “to pursue other career opportunities,” Bombardier said on Tuesday.

The CSeries has collected 182 firm orders, and the company has said it will have booked 300 by September, the tentative date for the airplane’s entry into commercial service. The latest purchase came today, when Iraqi Airways committed to buying five CSeries jets with options for 11 more.

The CSeries is an audacious gambit by Bombardier to muscle into the market for medium-size jets such as Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s 320 families. Those planes have become the workhorses of global airline fleets, with 140 to 190 seats and ranges of around 3,000 miles. The CSeries will have seating for 149 people in its larger version. “Look, Airbus and Boeing have had this space to themselves for two decades,” Fuller told Bloomberg News in February 2011. “You know what? The world deserves choice.”

The CSeries has also faced skepticism over Bombardier’s aggressive flight testing program, which began in September and was scheduled to last one year, putting the plane into service in 2014. Many in the industry expect the first delivery to slip into 2015, especially since Bombardier told Canadian regulators that flight testing may last until May 2015.

Bombardier is touting the airplane as a “clean sheet” design, with heavy use of carbon fiber composites, as on Boeing’s 787, and a new engine from Pratt & Whitney. “We haven’t seen an all-new narrow body in a long time,” Fuller last year told an Arizona gathering of members of the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading, noting that Airbus’s A320 from the mid-1980s was the most recent.

That all-new design could be working against Bombardier now, as airline buyers face higher costs to bring the airplane into their fleets, says George Ferguson, a transportation analyst with Bloomberg Industries. Because the CSeries isn’t derived from any previous Bombardier model—as Boeing and Airbus have done for years with larger versions of their 737 and 320 lines—pilots will need to be trained for an all-new type. Maintenance and parts will all be unfamiliar, and the secondary market for the model will be thin, Ferguson says. A rival, Brazil’s Embraer, is also planning a larger 100- to 130-seat E-2 jet based on its existing E-series, which has been enormously popular with airlines. The larger Embraer model isn’t expected for at least five years.

“Bottom line is there are costs to migrating to a new aircraft like the CSeries and to induce customers to move. Bombardier needs to offer price concessions [discounts], which I don’t think they are willing to do,” Ferguson says. “Right now, they run the risk that Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer knock them out of the market before they ever get there.”

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