Breaking News – On the Origin of the CSeries by Means of Internet Communication

A Bombardier CSeries of Swiss Global Air Lines Société anonyme, Salon international de l’Aéronautique et de l’Aspace, Le Bourget, Paris, June 2015.

Greetings, my reading friend, and welcome to the surprising world of aviation and space. Your truly must admit that the deal signed by Québec aerospace giant Bombardier Incorporé and European aerospace giant Airbus Societas Europaea came as a bit of a surprise. How did we get here, you may ask? A good question.

To quote Princess Irulan, a minor character from the rather disappointing 1984 science fiction movie Dune, a beginning is a very delicate time. One could argue that Bombardier’s quest for a jet-powered airliner larger and more spacious than its CRJ regional jetliner, a near revolutionary machine based on the superb Canadair / Bombardier Challenger business jet, began in 1995. Back then, a Dutch aircraft maker by the name of Naamloze Vennootschap Koninklijke Nederlandse Vliegtuigenfabriek Fokker was fighting for its very survival. Bombardier Aerospace Group, as the aerospace element of Bombardier was then called, apparently considered the possibility of buying it in order to gain access to the Fokker 100, a longer and improved, 100 or so seat version of the earlier F.28 Fellowship twin-engined jetliner. This project came to naught in early 1996 with Bombardier Aéronautique stating that the market for airliners of that size was not large enough.

Bombardier seemingly had a change of heart, however. In September 1998, at the Farnborough International Airshow, in England, the company announced its intention to develop an all new airliner, the BRJ-X (Bombardier Regional Jet eXpansion). This 90- to 115-seat aircraft was in no way derived from the CRJ. It did not even include the wing of the Bombardier Global Express long range business jet, as had hoped its Japanese maker, Mitsubishi Jūkōgyō Kabushiki Kaisha. The fuselage, for example, was wider than that of the CRJ, with 5 seats per row rather than 4. Even so, Bombardier said that the programme would be formally launched only if the company and its future risk-sharing partners found a way to produce the aircraft economically, and give it the lowest operating costs possible.

The wind began to turn in February 1999 when Bombardier’s great rival, Brazil’s Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica Sociedade Anónima (Embraer), launched a new family of regional airliners powered by a pair of General Electric CF34 turbofans, the very engine mounted on the CRJ. The first orders were not long in coming. A prototype flew in February 2002 and deliveries began in March 2004. Several versions of this narrow fuselage airliner (4 seats per row) have been put on the market so far. The longest can carry up to 132 passengers. The new airliners did very well indeed. As of January 2017, Embraer had delivered no less than 1 300 aircraft to airlines around the globe. Air Canada Incorporated itself had received 60 of these Brazilian airliners. But back to our story.

By August 1999, Bombardier’s ambitious timetable for the BRJ-X had slipped. The delivery date to the first airline was pushed back, from late 2003 to 2004. As well, two versions were now offered, one carrying 95 passengers and the other, 115. There was even talk of a 130-passenger version.

Interestingly, Bombardier had decided to mount a high tech, fly-by-wire flight control system on the BRJ-X. Installation of a test / research system in a Challenger was completed in late May or early June 1999. This flying testbed, the Active Control Technology demonstrator, was none other than the Challenger presently on display on the floor of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

Bombardier’s idea was apparently to design, produce and sell an aircraft larger than a typical regional jetliner, a new endeavour for the company, all the while trying to convince industry giants Airbus and Boeing Company that the BRJ-X did not threaten the smallest airliners they were either producing or developing – no easy task. This was by no means the company’s sole challenge.

Indeed, Bombardier ran the risk of being outflanked by the aforementioned jetliners announced by Embraer. The 50 to 70 passenger versions of the CRJ regional jetliner were a bit too small to compete and the BRJ-X had not even been launched yet. Having lost the initiative, the Québec company had to find a way to plug the hole in its product line. In October 1999, it presented the CRJ900, another stretched version of the ever faithful CRJ – a bold if risky move. The new aircraft saw its cabin lengthened from about 70 seats to about 90 seats – a 76% increase over the aircraft’s original version. The decision to produce, or not, this new version was to be taken before the end of 1999. If the CRJ900 went ahead, the BRJ-X might be delayed slightly.

If truth be told, many doubted that the BRJ-X would go beyond the drawing board stage. If the 95-seat version of the aircraft was to be dropped in order not to compete with the CRJ900, the larger, 115-seat version would face Airbus and Boeing airliners without any backup. In any event, Bombardier could not take on Embraer and these industry giants at the same time. Coming to a decision proved difficult, however. As things turned out, the CRJ900 was launched in July 2000.

Given all the above, realizing it might have to invest a huge sum in the BRJ-X programme and run the risk of increasing its sizeable debt load, fully aware too that it had many non-aerospace projects moving along simultaneously, Bombardier put the BRJ-X programme on hold in September 2000. It was never revived. Mind you, it has been suggested that the company was unable to keep the price tag below its initial goal or reduce exploitation costs as much as its had hoped. The possibility that Export and Development Canada, a federal government agency which had supported foreign sales of CRJ regional jetliners in the past, might refuse to do the same for the BRJ-X would not have helped either. All in all, one could argue that Bombardier had been bowled over by a perfect storm. Even though management insisted that cancelling the BRJ-X was the right thing to do, at least in public, Bombardier could only watch as Embraer signed more and more orders.

As things turned out, company engineers began working on another clean sheet design, the New Commercial Aircraft Program, in the spring of 2004. Quickly renamed the CSeries, this twin-engined jetliner was brought to the attention of the airline industry in July, at the Farnborough International Airshow. In the spring of 2005, the company began to promote the aircraft, available in two versions (up to 125 and 145 seats). Deliveries were to begin in 2010. Sadly, this was not to be. In January 2006, alleging that conditions were not appropriate to launch the programme, in other words significant orders could not be secured, Bombardier Aerospace, a name adopted not too long before, suspended work on the CSeries. Low rate development work continued, however, with an emphasis on attracting partners in areas where markets were growing fast, China and India for example. Various aspects of the aircraft were modified around that time. The amount of composite material used in the structure, for example, went up dramatically.

In February 2007, Bombardier Aerospace formally launched yet another stretched version, the last one presumably, of the CRJ. The new CRJ1000 would accommodate up to 104 passengers – twice the capacity of the original version. The prototype flew in July 2009 but glitches with the control system delayed development. Some observers wondered in early 2010 if this version was not be a stretch too far. In any event, deliveries were scheduled to begin in early 2011.

Mind you, back in January 2007, Bombardier Aerospace had indicated that work on the CSeries would continue, thus reaffirming its commitment to its new airliner. The first production aircraft was to be delivered in 2013. In November of 2007, the Canadian aircraft maker let it be known that the CSeries would be powered by two of the brand new geared turbofan engines being developed by the Pratt and Whitney Aircraft Division of United Technologies Corporation. Canada’s brand new airliner would be powered by equally new engines – a bold if somewhat risky combination.

In any event, Bombardier Aéronautique got the green light to promote the aircraft in early 2008. It officially launched the CSeries programme in mid July, as the Farnborough International Airshow was about to begin, with a letter of interest for 30 aircraft from Deutsche Lufthansa Aktiengesellschaft. This expression of interests on the part of the major airline in Germany eventually became a firm order. As of the middle of 2010, Bombardier Aéronautique has received firm orders from 2 other companies, for 60 additional aircraft.

As promising as the initial orders for 90 CSeries were, they paled into insignificance when compared to the potential sales. Bombardier Aéronautique indicated that 6 700 or so airliners in the same class as the CSeries would be sold until 2030. The Canadian company hoped to grab a substantial share of that fabulous market.

As things turned out, the first CSeries flew in September 2013. Deliveries began in July 2016. The total number of aircraft ordered stood at 360 as of mid-2017, which is nice but not fantastic. The CSeries is undoubtedly an impressive machine but Bombardier may have bitten more than it could chew when it launched the project. The Québec-based company seemingly had to give away control of the CSeries in order to save it. We do live in interesting times, don’t we?

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Rénald Fortier