Two events in the past year at a cargo airport near Montreal could prove decisive to the success or failure of Bombardier’s CSeries jet.
On September 16 last year, the aircraft – meant to challenge the Airbus and Boeing duopoly in narrow-body jets – took off for its maiden flight from Mirabel airport. Participants in the celebrations hailed the craft as “a game-changer”.
Then, on May 29, after a test flight, a serious failure occurred in the engine of a CSeries aircraft on the ground at Mirabel. While the aircraft has returned to ground testing after adjustments to its engine – Pratt & Whitney’s new PurePower engine – the aircraft has yet to return to flight and will not fulfil plans to be at this month’s Farnborough Air Show.
The challenge for Bombardier is to return the aircraft to flight and secure new buyers. Amid a deluge of orders for the products of Bombardier’s bigger rivals, orders for the CSeries are growing only slowly.
Cai von Rumohr, analyst at Cowen, the investment bank, shares the widespread scepticism about whether the project will finally succeed.
“I think they’ve got their work cut out for them,” he says.
Bombardier continues to be optimistic that the aircraft can reach 300 firm orders by the second half of next year – when it starts carrying passengers – from the 203 at present.
Pierre Beaudoin, Bombardier’s chief executive, told analysts in May, before the engine incident, that the company was pursuing “quite a few very active campaigns” to win new orders.
“People have been following the programme since the beginning and now are gaining more and more confidence with the airplane as the flight test [programme] is progressing,” he said.
The problem facing the aircraft goes well beyond the current technical one.
It was designed to target a perceived gap in passenger capacity between regional jets and Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s A320 family. Regional jets – of which Bombardier is the largest single producer – typically carry fewer than 100 passengers while the 737 and A320 usually carry a maximum 189 and 180 people respectively.
Because regional jets have grown in size and smaller narrow-body variants – such as Airbus’s A319 – can be configured for as few as 130 passengers, the gap has turned out to be far smaller than anticipated. The budget airlines that are among the biggest buyers of narrow-body jets tend to seek to carry as many people as can safely be crammed into a single narrow-body aircraft.
Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, Europe’s largest low-cost airline, made it clear when he announced an order for 175 Boeing 737-800s in March last year that the 737’s 189-passenger capacity made the aircraft more attractive than the A320, which carries only nine fewer passengers.
Mr von Rumohr points out that the larger the aircraft grows, the more it competes directly with Boeing and Airbus, which have the scale advantages of producing 40 or more of their narrow-body aircraft a month. Rivals such as Brazil’s Embraer have been wary of straying too far on to the larger players’ turf.
But there is the possibility, Mr Rumohr adds, that the CSeries will find such a gap in the market that customers order it in large numbers. Boeing’s 727 airliner proved to be that kind of surprise success in the past.
However, he says, “I think there’s a much greater risk of potentially not doing well with the CSeries.”