If all had gone according to plan, Bombardier’s direct challenge to the Boeing 737, the world’s best-selling commercial plane, would be approaching its second year in service. Instead, Bombardier’s grand plan for a new plane, the CSeries airliner, has faced myriad delays.
There have been unspecified supplier problems, design changes and last winter’s horrible weather. Then in May at an airport outside Montreal, one of the plane’s innovative new engines exploded during a ground test.
Now, many analysts expect that the first passengers won’t step aboard a CSeries jet until 2016, although the company is standing by its forecast of late 2015.
While delays are common in the aviation business, the time lost has made it all the more difficult for Bombardier to take on its rivals, Boeing and Airbus. Those industry giants have rushed to create versions of their existing single-aisle planes that steal CSeries’ thunder by incorporating many of its innovations, particularly better fuel economy.
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“They’re in a street fight,” Addison Schonland, a partner at AirInsight, a commercial aviation consulting firm.
Bombardier’s project has long passed the point of no return. Hundreds of planes have been ordered. Production is slowly rumbling up to speed. The company is on track to spend $4.4 billion to develop the plane.
The payoff for Bombardier could be significant if the plane proves a serious competitor to the 737 and the Airbus A320, the European company’s highest volume airliner. Already the world’s largest rail producer and a leader in commuter and business jets, Bombardier could become a major player in civil aviation.
Bombardier committed to the CSeries program in 2007 after an air travel study that it commissioned. The study showed, according to Pierre Beaudoin, Bombardier’s president and chief executive, a growing impatience among travelers to route through major hubs on the way to their final destination.
Those hubs give airlines greater economies of scale. But Bombardier calculated that a new efficient airliner slightly smaller than a 737 or an A320 – one with 100 to 150 seats – could carry passengers directly between smaller airports at the same cost per seat as the larger planes.
The linchpin for the CSeries was a new concept for engines developed by Pratt & Whitney. The new engine design promised fuel savings of up to 20 percent and unusually low noise levels.
Robert Dewar, a Bombardier vice president who is general manager for the CSeries project, acknowledged that new technologies, particularly fly-by-wire, contributed to the delays. The engine’s failure in May, he added, eventually proved to be caused by a relatively minor fault in an oiling system rather than a fundamental design flaw.