Bombardier turns cool on composites for airliners

 - July 24, 2007, 9:58 AM

As studies on Bombardier’s proposed 110- to 130-seat jets progress, all the early talk about extensive use of new high-tech composites in the airframe now appears somewhat exaggerated if not a complete misrepresentation. In an interview with AIN, the president of Bombardier’s new aircraft division, former CAE and Boeing executive Gary Scott, seemed hardly convinced that achieving a 20-percent improvement in operating cost over existing models would require a particularly radical new approach to airframe design and manufacturing.

“There isn’t anything in our market space that demands dramatic new technologies to produce an attractive airplane,” said Scott. “With the 7E7, which they want to fly from New York to Singapore, they need an all-composite fuselage, and they need composites to increase the pressure in the cabin to the levels they’re targeting.”

When news surfaced that Bombardier had resumed studies on a narrowbody commercial jet, company executives revealed that plans to achieve the cost-saving goals would depend largely on the use of composite technology. In fact, in an interview with AIN during May’s Regional Airline Association Convention in St. Louis, Bombardier Regional Aircraft president Steve Ridolfi reiterated the importance of composites to the effort, and stressed the need for a lighter airframe to allow for smaller engines and therefore lower fuel burn.

“I think most people speculate that this is a chance to come out with an all-composite airplane. Well it is,” said Scott. “But we’re not going to do it for the sake of that technology. When overall maintenance costs drive us in the direction of more composites, we’ll go there. But we’re looking at improving the overall life-cycle costs of this airplane and in improving the economics 20 percent over anything that’s flying today and 15 percent over anything new that’s being offered.”

Now the effort appears to center on metal alloys for the fuselage, and perhaps composite surfaces for the planned fly-by-wire flight controls, for example. Instead, Scott stressed the likely need for an engine that would contribute half of the cost savings. That engine does not yet exist, he added. Asked about the possible application of the Pratt & Whitney PW6000–the engine that had originally not reached its fuel-burn targets, forcing a three-year certification delay–Scott seemed less than enthusiastic.

“The PW6000 is not new,” said Scott. “So our engine would have to be a derivative of that. We officially call our new engine ‘yet to be determined.’”

What new technology the airplane might use could involve another OEM or supplier, Scott confirmed, but he didn’t point to his former employer from Seattle as necessarily the top candidate, as speculated in the Canadian press.

“It’s no surprise to me that people speculate in that way,” he conceded. “But I’m not driven that way just because of my past. We are looking at whatever partnership might make sense for Bombardier. I wouldn’t rule out any other OEM, airframe manufacturer or supplier.”

Risk Partners Are Familiar Names
The project team expects to choose most of the participants in the supply chain by the end of this year, he added, in time to ask for authority to offer from the board by the end of next year’s first quarter. In terms of risk-sharing partners, Scott said he expects mostly the same companies that have participated in Bombardier’s regional-jet and business airplane programs to contribute roughly a third of the estimated $2 billion development cost. Another third would have to come from public coffers, while Bombardier takes responsibility for the rest.

“I’m talking to the Canadian government, as well as other governments,” Scott said. “We’re making it clear that we understand that government involvement and government investment in new airplane programs is just essential.”

By June employing 150 people, the project team now works at one site outside Montreal, where Bombardier plans to double its staff by the end of the year. By then the company should have a better idea of the exact weight and thrust combinations; as plans stand today, a 110- to 115-seat version would show a mtow of 120,000 pounds for a short-range version designed to fly some 1,800 miles. A larger version, likely to hold 130 to 135 passengers, would probably weigh about 10,000 pounds more. Scott didn’t offer estimates for planned long-range models capable of flying nonstop across North America.

Scott said customer talks so far have involved only major and low-fare airlines, primarily in North America and Europe. As in the case of the stillborn BRJ-X–a project abandoned by Bombardier after engineers failed to meet cost-savings targets–the company expects to target majors looking for replacements for their aging Boeing 737s, DC-9s, MD-80s and Fokker 100s. Interest from low-fare carriers has arisen as a result of plans to add connections to smaller cities where they can’t justify the cost of flying existing narrowbodies.

“A lot of airlines are approaching some major structural reviews that will require investments of several millions of dollars to fly airplanes worth maybe a million,” said Scott. “I don’t see this airplane being flown by regionals. If for some reason the scope clauses got raised to 125 seats, that would just increase the market, but it’s plenty big without it.”