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Bombardier changes the messenger, but CSeries sales struggles to be a hard fix


Bombardier is having an increasingly hard time selling airlines on the CSeries.

As Bombardier continues a management restructuring with the CSeries flight test program still grounded and CSeries sales stagnant, it’s fair to wonder whether the Canadian manufacturer’s much-hyped “all-new” aircraft has much bigger problems than who is delivering the message about it.

Bombardier’s latest move is replacing Philippe Poutissou, the company’s longtime head of commercial aircraft marketing. I’ve had numerous extensive conversations with Poutissou over the years regarding Bombardier’s commercial aircraft portfolio and listened to him give briefings in a variety of forums on the CSeries. He was always well prepared and articulate when discussing Bombardier’s commercial aircraft programs, and he vigorously pushed the virtues of the CSeries in recent years, but the manufacturer is nevertheless having an increasingly hard time selling airlines on the aircraft, its bold venture into the low-end of the narrowbody airliner market. Firm orders stand at just 203.

The fact that the CSeries flight test program’s grounding owing to a May 29 engine failure is nearing the three-month mark is not helping Bombardier’s cause. I have little doubt that the flight test program will get back up into the air and the aircraft will eventually enter service, albeit much later than Bombardier’s originally planned 2013 service entry.

However, developments since the CSeries program was officially launched at the 2008 Farnborough Airshow have complicated Bombardier’s sales pitch for the aircraft. Bombardier believed at the time that it was getting a jump on any all-new narrowbody or large regional jets that Airbus, Boeing or Embraer would potentially launch, meaning the CSeries would beat them all to market. But Airbus, Boeing and Embraer all balked at an all-new aircraft and decided to move forward with re-engining programs. In fact, Airbus made a variant of the very same Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engine affixed to the CSeries an option on the A320neo and Embraer chose the GTF as the sole source engine on its E-Jet E2 program.

Still, Bombardier pressed ahead with the message that an “all-new” aircraft was a much better alternative than a re-engined aircraft. At the 2010 Regional Airline Association convention in Milwaukee, when Airbus and Boeing were still mulling narrowbody re-engining programs, Poutissou pushed back against the notion that re-engined A320s and 737s would seriously threaten the CSeries, noting that Bombardier’s aircraft was “not a simple engine plug-and-play.”

He added, “The only way to achieve a step-change in economics is to look at the entire package and the engine is only 50% of the package.”

Indeed, Boeing, Airbus and Embraer all spent a lot of time considering re-engining vs. developing an all-new aircraft, fearing that airlines would be underwhelmed by the same old aircraft with a new engine. Ultimately, they all decided a re-engining was the better, less risky option.

And to a degree that perhaps none of them anticipated, airlines and commercial aircraft lessors wholeheartedly bought the re-engining concept. Whereas a few years ago re-engining was considered an uncertain route for commercial aircraft manufacturers to go, it is now a central and widely-accepted component of commercial aviation’s near future. Sales of the A320neo, the 737 MAX and the E-Jet E2—all CSeries competitors—are robust. Sales of the CSeries are not.

What was once the CSeries’s strong selling point—that it was an all-new aircraft—looks increasingly to be a weak point in the age of re-engining. Airlines appear to be looking at the options—the neo, the MAX, the E2 and the CSeries—and coming to the conclusion that re-engined versions of a known and proven product are the better bet than venturing into the unknown of the CSeries, particularly since Bombardier has no previous track record with an aircraft of the CSeries’s size.

When Airbus was considering whether to move forward with the A320neo, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said during a Bloomberg interview that fitting an A320 with a GTF engine would “most definitely kill the CSeries program.”

Those are chilling words for Bombardier as it struggles with CSeries sales. No amount of marketing savvy from Ross Mitchell, Poutissou’s replacement, may be able to change airlines’ perception that the CSeries is out of place among the wave of re-engined aircraft soon to flood the market.

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