A six-year-long, on-again-off-again courtship of Delta Air Lines by a series of Bombardier sales teams appears to be nearing a final consummation, with the SkyTeam carrier reportedly poised to sign deals for up to 125 CSeries aircraft.
In separate reports by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Canada’s Financial Post, Bombardier is said to be close to winning a deal that could secure a lengthy production run for the long-imperiled CSeries family, rescue the company’s commercial aircraft business and vindicate the Quebec government’s $1 billion investment to help push the new single-aisle through a five-year production ramp-up that will begin shortly.
“If it goes through, it could mean the difference between survival and death for the programme,” says Richard Aboulafia, the vice-president of analysis for the Teal Group.
As one of the CSeries programme’s most outspoken critics, Aboulafia has built market forecasts assuming a short production run for the Bombardier product. But a victory with Delta Air Lines would change Teal Group’s assumptions.
“We’d increase our forecast, and assume the CSeries has been established as a viable third force on the single aisle market,” Aboulafia says.
Incoming Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian said on 14 April that no decision on a new narrowbody order to replace 117 MD-88s could be announced until at least May.
But since 2010 Bastian and outgoing Delta CEO Richard Anderson have never been shy about expressing their admiration for Bombardier’s most ambitious aircraft project, as well as the Pratt & Whitney PW1500G geared turbofan engines that power the aircraft.
Delta’s interest was evident within two years of the CSeries unveiling by Bombardier at the Paris air show, when the type was still three years away from a then-scheduled entry into service by the end of 2013. The 110-seat CS100 is now scheduled to debut with Swiss International Air Lines in mid-year, followed by the 135-seat CS300 in the third quarter.
In a 2010 interview with Flightglobal, Anderson called the CSeries an “airplane that has substantially better fuel efficiency than the existing single-aisle airplanes in service today”.
The attraction was mutual. Delta has long been a prized customer for Bombardier, having launched the 50-seat jet regional revolution in the 1990s with an order for CRJ100s. By mid-2011, Bombardier was openly courting Delta’s endorsement of its latest commercial aircraft. Then CSeries programme manager Gary Scott told Flightglobal the CSeries would be “ideal” for Delta’s network.
“So I'll be disappointed if they don't order some CSeries eventually,” Scott says, before adding: “But does our programme depend on it? No. Are they incredibly important? Yes."
At the time, Delta appeared to be considering the CSeries for a major narrowbody order, but instead opted in August 2011 to buy a much larger aircraft instead with an order for 100 Boeing 737-900ERs. That still left room in Delta’s long-term plans for a smaller aircraft to replace the MD-88 fleet.
By 2013, however, Delta’s appreciation for the CSeries’ performance and technology seemed to have expired, with Anderson flatly ruling out the aircraft family as a contender for a new order of small narrowbody aircraft. At the time, Bombardier’s technical and financial challenges were becoming clear, with first flight slipping several months to September 2013 as engineers worked to resolve glitches in the fly-by-wire system.
But Delta’s executives also may not have accepted a since-discarded Bombardier sales pitch focused on the aircraft’s value, rather than the SkyTeam carrier’s noted preference for the lowest possible price.
A new Bombardier leadership team entered the company in the first half of 2015, promising to heed the market’s call for sales discounts and focusing on securing “one or two” blockbuster deals. The first sign of progress came in February, when Air Canada committed to buy up to 45 CS300s. But it was possible to overlook the significance of the deal, as it wasn’t clear how important political considerations factored into Air Canada’s procurement decision. Shortly after announcing the commitment, the Canadian government dropped litigation against Air Canada for allegedly reneging on agreements to keep maintenance bases open.
But Delta executives had already signaled new interest in the CSeries, as a re-tooled Bombardier leadership team brought a revamped sales pitch to the negotiations. A CSeries test aircraft visited Atlanta in December, drawing a personal inspection by Anderson.
A month later, Anderson acknowledged the carrier had taken a “serious interest” in the CSeries, using similar language to the praise he had showered on the type five years earlier.
“We actually think at the right price it’s quite a competitive airplane given the engine technology,” Anderson says.