Bombardier’s C Series Could be a Game Changer, If It Delivers

Let’s say you want to buy a single aisle airplane between 100 and 150 seats. Where do you go? If you’re that rich, you probably have someone take care of it for you, so where does that person go?

Right now, your choices are Boeing or Airbus. That’s it. And they’ve done a good job of competing against each other, but they continue to hem and haw on a replacement for their current offerings, which are getting a bit long in the tooth. That opens the door for another competitor to come in, assuming that they can actually pull off a meaningful improvement in efficiency. Bombardier’s C Series may have the best shot.

C Series Interior

We’ve talked about the C Series here before, but after listening to Bombardier yesterday at the Regional Airline Association (RAA) 2010 convention in Milwaukee, I thought it was worth revisiting.

Chances are that you’ve been on a Bombardier airplane. They make the CRJ 50 seat jet, CRJ-700, and CRJ-900. They also make the Q400 turboprop. Now, they’re going upmarket again and looking at the 100-149 seat market, competing against Boeing and Airbus.

The plan right now is for two models. The CS100 will seat 100 people in a two class configuration while the CS300 will seat 120 in the same configuration (or 138 in the all coach configuration that Frontier will have). This will compete with Boeing’s 737-600/700 and the Airbus A318/A319. But why would someone stray from Boeing or Airbus to fill this need when they have to stick with them for the bigger narrowbodies?

Well, the Boeing and Airbus entries aren’t particularly compelling in this area. The A318 and 737-600 are slow sellers, primarily because when you shrink a plane, the economics just aren’t there. So Bombardier is going to tackle this segment head-on.

But the most compelling reason that this can work? If the numbers as promised hold up, then this plane will be a rock star. The airplane uses the Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engine, something that they continue to claim will deliver a 20% reduction in fuel burn and 15% decrease in cash operating costs. That’s huge.

The plane will also be very comfortable as a passenger. Seats will be in a 2-3 across configuration and each seat will be about a half inch wider than on an Airbus and more than an inch wider than a 737. The overhead bins will be big enough to accommodate roller bags for 90% of the passengers onboard, which is ample room.

Sounds great, right? And with a first delivery in 2013, this plane will be years ahead of whatever Boeing and Airbus decide to do.

So why wouldn’t this be a complete rock star? Two reasons.

1) It needs to live up to its promises. Geared turbofans are complicated and it’s not clear that they’ll be able to reach the level of reliability that needs to be delivered. Also, we don’t know if the savings will be exactly as advertised, and we won’t know until the plane takes to the skies.

2) Who will fly it? This smaller airplane is undoubtedly something that legacy airlines would like to hand off to their regional partners, but there’s no union that’s going to allow that. This is a mainline airplane, but can they come to an agreement on who should fly it and for how much? Admittedly, this is less of an issue in my eyes, but it’s still an issue.

So far, the only order in the US is Republic (Frontier), which is fitting since they don’t have to worry about number two above. My guess is that if this plane performs as advertised, it’s going to be a strong seller. We’ll have to wait a couple of years before we know if it’s going to live up to its promises.


15 Responses to Bombardier’s C Series Could be a Game Changer, If It Delivers

  1. Andrew says:

    This all sounds great, but when has an airplane actually been built and delivered on schedule? They’re saying 2013, but how far along are they really? I don’t even feel like they’re close to having even an empty fuselage to wheel out (like boeing did with the 787 three years ago, a full 2.5 years before they even started flight testing!)

    I think we should know by now that whenever we see a date for an aircraft to be released, we should automatically add a couple of years to that date.

  2. Dirk says:

    Be careful with how you compare the CSeries to the 787. True, they had an empty fuselage 2.5 years before flight testing, but that’s because flight testing was delayed 2 years from it’s initial start. Remember when the 787 was supposed to EIS in 2008?

    I give Bombardier all the credit on this one. Where Boeing accelerated everything with the 787, and Airbus did with the A380, Bombardier is taking this one slow. Sure, there are going to be bumps and possibly delays, just like with any program, but Bombardier has the distinct advantage of watching Boeing and Airbus make the mistakes on their previous two programs.

    If aviation history has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t use the incumbent’s mistakes against the challenger. Boeing never would have been able to build the 707, because de Havilland couldn’t do it. Embraer would never be able to enter the 70-110 seat market, because Boeing couldn’t make money at it. GE’s CF-34 would never have been able to compete with the JT-8D powerhouse. The list goes on and on.

    Analysts have complained about how long the development of the CSeries has been, and then complained about how it’s moving too fast and will inevitably see delays. You’ve got paid consultants writing some slam pieces against Bombardier, and you’ve got Bombardier’s own propaganda. The truth is somewhere right smack in the middle, and I give Cranky all the credit in the world for what I would call a very accurate article.

  3. Is there really a need for this type plane?

  4. E H says:

    What about the ERJ 195? This is a new modern aircraft that competes on this market.

  5. A says:

    Still sounds like a 717 with a different jet engine design. Seeing that the 717 was a flop, why would this be a success? Seems to me that 100 seat segment just isn’t all that big of a market. What good are added efficiencies if you can’t fill the seats? Unless they use these on existing mainline routes replacing 737/320 equipment and just increase frequency to keep capacity similar. Still, think that would negate the efficiency.

    Also, if the geared turbofan is truly a game changer, what’s stoppping Boeing and Airbus for getting that technology to work with their existing 737/320 designs? I’m no engineer, but can’t imagine it would be impossible.

  6. Oliver says:

    Choice is good. Competition is good. While it will upset the “if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going” fanboys, in think the industry can only benefit from the availability of alternatives like the C series.

    As for the 717 comparison, what’s the range going to be for these new jets? (I was surprised to learn – here I think – that it Midwest’s 717s couldn’t make it from Milwaukee to the west coast).

    • Sanjeev M says:

      I completely agree with Oliver.

    • Sanjeev M says:

      For range, Wikipedia says 4074 km, so if we assume 3900 km (that’s about DCA to SFO). So we’re not going to get BOS-LAX or JFK-LAX with this aircraft.

      This shouldn’t a problem for Frontier however, cause the Denver and Milwaukee hubs are smack in the middle of the country. They probably could even do Mexican flying.

  7. I think the scope clauses for mainline carriers are going to make this plane not a success. I doubt the costs of an extra type would outweigh the operational cost savings.

  8. one thing is for sure, there hasn’t been a completely new product in this segment for many years – the A318/19 is showing its age and the beginnings of the 737 line started flying 42 years ago. the 717 was basically a glorified MD95 which itself was a revamped MD90 which happened to be an updated MD88 which was just a revised MD80 which was really a modernized DC9. right?

    • No and yes. Technically for legal and regulatory reasons the 717 is a reworked DC-9, but beyond the fuselage circumference and the engine configuration thats the limits of the similarities between the two. (Okay, and they might’ve used some of the same internal furnishing components..)

      The manufacturers have been driving through a nice little hole that the FAA has that adding a new type is much easier from a certification standpoint than adding a whole new model.

      I’ve got a friend who is working on the 747-8, and his statement is that for all intents and purposes its a new plane, new wings, its stretched, new engines, new landing gear, new avionics. The shape is simply the same.

      A 737-900 shares just about as much with a 727-200 as it shares with a 737-100.

  9. CF says:

    The problem with the 717 is that it really was a shrunken MD-80 (which was a stretched DC-9, but whatever). The design just was an orphan – it wasn’t compatible with any other existing airplanes so it couldn’t be part of a family. It also, I believe, wasn’t a huge leap in efficiency like this plane should be.

    For Frontier, this plane is an A319 replacement. It seats two more than the A319 and they start coming in when the A319s come off lease. So, it could be the same plane but far more efficient.

  10. DRG says:

    The comments about who would fly it are very American-centric. In most of the world, it is already mainline carriers that fly the Embraer 170 series and up.

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