ANALYSIS: Lessors spurn CSeries overtures

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Despite claimed, and significant, performance and operating economic advantages over its narrowbody competitors, top lessors appear unwilling to embrace the Bombardier CSeries thanks to two criteria outside of the control of its engineers: price and residual value.

"Something's missing, I can't explain it," says Steven Udvar-Hazy, chairman and chief executive of Air Lease Corp.

"We've had offers [but] they're not attractive compared to Embraer," says Udvar-Hazy. ALC has so-far invested in 30 of Embraer's E-Jets, which occupy a similar portion of the market as the smaller CS100.

Udvar-Hazy believes there's a disconnect between what the market is willing to pay for the CSeries against what Bombardier believes the aircraft's capabilities are worth.

Bombardier says the Pratt & Whitney PW1500G-powered CSeries will improve fuel burn by 20% and cash operating costs by 15% on a per-seat basis compared to its Boeing and Airbus competitors, with a range of up to 2,950nm (5,500km).

"It's not magic, it's physics," says Chet Fuller, Bombardier senior vice-president, sales, marketing and asset management of the aircraft's performance.

"The fuel consumption on the airplane looks very, very good. It looks like we're going to produce exactly the right thrust with the right [specific fuel consumption] at entry into service. Programme weight is going to be at spec, basically, at EIS," he says.

Bombardier has garnered 138 firm orders for the CSeries, against a target of 300 by EIS, plus 134 options and purchase rights and 45 commitments for the aircraft, including two lessors. Closer ties with China's Comac may increase that number, too. Joe Nadol, aerospace analyst for JP Morgan, a finance house, predicts a coming Chinese CSeries order, causing him to list Bombardier's stock as his top pick for April.

Key questions remain unanswered, however. "When you build an airplane with all those capabilities, can you get paid a premium for them?" asks Jeff Knittel, president of transportation finance at CIT, a lessor. "The counter argument is to only build and charge what customers really need and perhaps this is why the Embraer 190/195 programme has been so successful."

The CSeries's performance is attractive, though, says Knittel. "I've never had somebody not take an airplane from me as a lessor because it's had too much range," says Knittel, "They may not pay extra for the capability, but they'll always take it."

The conundrum for Bombardier is two-fold, say industry insiders. First, they say, Bombardier believes lowering its prices could tarnish the value of the aircraft's new technology, irreparably injuring the profit potential as the company tries to claw back a return on its investment.

Bombardier chief executive Pierre Beaudoin has reiterated his comfort with the company's pricing strategy, which places the list price for the CS100 and CS300 at $58.28 and $66.57 million, respectively, says the airframer.

Both figures remain below the list prices for the smaller aircraft in the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families, and their re-engined Neo and Max equivalents. However, both airframers have sufficiently deep pockets to pitch their offers well below those levels. Embraer's list price for its E-195 stands at approximately $47 million, albeit with older powerplants than the CSeries.

Yet, Udvar-Hazy believes Bombardier needs to cut prices now to reap the benefits later, not least of which is a clearer picture of the aircraft's residual value. He says: "They've got to build the customer base. Even if it means sacrificing pricing, because if they don't, they won't have a successful programme."

The cost of production, too, is key. While Airbus and Boeing are producing shrunk variants of their narrowbodies, Bombardier's CSeries models should be optimised. "The question is can you produce an airplane cheap enough to make sense in that space? Because it is about economics, when you shrink airplanes, it tends to be expensive," says Knittel.

For Boeing and Airbus and their existing customer base the trend is toward larger narrowbodies. The market's centre of gravity has moved away from smaller 737-700 and A319 models, and now sits with the larger A320 and 737-800. A larger aircraft therefore can command a higher price relative to its production cost.

Sandwiched between Boeing and Airbus' duopoly pricing and high rate production, Hazy says the all-new CSeries will be further pressed if Embraer proceeds with re-engined and stretched versions of the E-190 and E-195.

Rather than an expensive all-new design, the Brazilian airframer will be able to take advantage of the latest engines for comparatively little outlay on design and industrialisation.

Embraer may have dithered over its decision, but unless Bombardier convinces the market of the business case for CSeries, its approach will have proved the correct one.