A glance at the history books explains why Bombardier’s niche-market CSeries airliner was always unlikely to succeed

When Bombardier decided last week to leave its CSeries project on the drawing board, it will have left some within the company scratching their heads. For despite repeated delays to the launch over the last nine months as customer commitments were sought, Bombardier executives remained confident they had an aircraft the market wanted, and it was just a matter of time before orders rolled in.

But the orders didn’t materialise and, blaming “market dynamics”, Bombardier had no choice but to put the CSeries on the back-burner. But if potential customers did not have the appetite to buy an all-new 110- to 135-seat jet in a year when Airbus and Boeing scored record narrowbody sales, when will they?

Undoubtedly the peculiarities of the North American airlines’ financial situation, which put most of them out of step with the rest of the world during last year’s buying spree, hampered Bombardier’s plans, as it prevented Northwest Airlines from being able to become the CSeries launch customer. But given the airframer’s declared intention to secure customers from all corners of the globe, then why was there such an apparent disregard from the world’s airlines for this impressive little jet?

Perhaps the answer lies in the aviation history books, which are littered with examples of failed attempts to tap into the sector (100-140 seats) that Bombardier had in its sights with the CSeries. This sector has always been difficult to satisfy, as it treads the narrow path between the top end of the regional market and the bottom end of the mainline airliner families like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737.

A decade ago, Fokker failed in its ambition to create a family spanning the 80- to 130- seat sector, developed from the Fokker 100 and dubbed the “JetLine”. This proposal was overtaken by another failed attempt at an all-new 100- to 140- seater – the “FA-X”. Not dissimilar in size and configuration to the CSeries, the FA-X (later DA-X) was studied in conjunction with Fokker’s then owners Daimler-Benz Aerospace (DASA) and Asian companies, before being quietly dropped as DASA focused on its Airbus role. A few years later another all-new 100- to 140-seat design emerged, this time from Airbus itself. The AE31X family was to be built in China, but the programme failed and Airbus came up with the 107-seat A318 derivative of the A320 instead.

And there lies the rub. The 100- to 140-seat sector is easy prey to the major players with “cut and shut” derivatives of their 150-seaters. Few dispute that a purpose-built small main­line jet would offer superior performance and economy for that particular niche compared with a heavy, over-capable A320 or 737 “shrink” – Bombardier put the CSeries cost savings at 15%. But time and again these benefits are outweighed by the commonality offered by derivatives, if the price is right.

A case in point is the Boeing 717. It was engineered by McDonnell Douglas (under the MD-95 designation) as the perfect 100-seat short- haul aircraft and was given a clear path after the Boeing takeover by the Seattle 737 salesmen. But after a 10-year struggle the programme was killed off last year with only 155 orders to its name. The 717 found itself under attack from both sides – the A320 from above and the new large regional jets from below. Even talk of 717 family developments failed to spark enough interest to let Boeing develop larger variants and shake off the “orphan” tag.

Although the technologically advanced CSeries promised to revolutionise the sector when it arrived in 2010, the industry was clearly still not convinced. Witness the struggle that Bombardier had since the concept’s unveiling in July 2004 to convince the engine makers of the business case to develop an all-new engine, before Pratt & Whitney Canada eventually came to the rescue. But most airlines were apparently still not convinced by the superiority of the niche-specific CSeries design. “Airbus and Boeing can sell us bigger aircraft at a discount, which in effect gives us ‘free seats’, and that’s hard to resist,” one senior airline fleet manager recently told Flight International.

With this pressure from its peers, Bombardier knew that timing of the CSeries was critical. If it was to maximise its operating costs savings, it had to aim for a relatively narrow window of opportunity to capitalise before its rivals firm up their plans for the next-generation A320 and 737.

And without a single order after 18 months of selling, this opportunity was disappearing fast. If the CSeries does makes a return, it will have to be a very different animal.

Source: Flight International