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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.

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