Where does CSeries fit in Chinese puzzle?

What does Bombardier’s tie-up with China’s AVIC I on development a stretched version of the ARJ21 regional jet mean for the CSeries? Good news – perhaps. By linking with the Chinese on the 105-seat ARJ21-900, the Canadian manufacturer could buy itself time to do a better job its own 110- to 130-seat airliner. It also secures a partner in market that could prove huge for the CSeries – if it is ever developed.

The CSeries is Bombardier’s second attempt at breaking into the 100-seat-plus market. Its 80- to 120-seat BRJ-X was shelved in 2000 in favour of stretching the CRJ700 into the CRJ900. Hindsight suggests the five-abreast BRJ-X would have struggled to be competitive with Embraer’s four-abreast E-170/190 family, and Bombardier has wrestled with similar issues in defining a marketable CSeries.

The issue is technology, and the rapid changes now under way. Design of the CSeries was begun before Boeing raised the bar on composites use and overnight raised airlines’ expectations on efficiency. As it has held off launching the CSeries, Bombardier has updated the design, switching to a composite wing and flirting with a composite fuselage to reduce weight.

But its biggest problem remains finding an engine. And here the delays might help. By pushing back the CSeries launch to 2008, and its entry into service to 2013, Bombardier might just catch the leading edge of propulsion technology being developed for the next generation of Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies, which are now expected to be ready around 2014-15.

Here is the Catch-22 – to stand a chance of competing against Airbus and Boeing, Bombardier hopes to be first to market with a new-generation 110- to 130-seater. To do that, it has to begin development ahead of the two giants. But can it persuade an engine manufacturer to launch a new engine – possibly a new type of powerplant, like Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan – before Airbus and Boeing are ready? Will the proximity of the CSeries to the next-generation narrowbodies in size and timing persuade the engine manufacturers to back Bombardier’s risky entry into a new and hotly contested market?

The tie-up with China’s AVIC I could keep Bombardier in the game while this power play unfolds.

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