New Bombardier unit faces ‘big decisions’ on big jets

 - October 8, 2007, 6:11 AM

Bombardier Aerospace has begun staffing its freshly established new commercial aircraft division outside Montreal as it looks toward the launch of a new 115- to 135-seat jet by next spring. Still without an official designation, the proposed three-member family would propel the Canadian aerospace power outside its traditional realm of business aircraft and regional airliner assembly and into the company of Boeing and Airbus. Although outwardly confident in the company’s ability to build  an airplane in that class, Bombardier Regional Aircraft president Steve Ridolfi won’t underestimate the technical and cost challenges.

“We have some big decisions ahead of us,” said Ridolfi during an interview with AIN at the recent Regional Airline Association Convention in St. Louis. “It’s pretty early days, but we believe we can compress all that study work, which is normally very significant, into a 12-month window because we had a running start with the BRJ-X.”

The stillborn BRJ-X, of course, never progressed beyond the study stage because, according to Ridolfi, the company could not find enough operating cost savings to justify the investment needed to compete on even terms with the Embraer 190.

Instead, the company chose a less ambitious route, stretching the 70-seat CRJ700 to fit another four rows of seats. But two years after its introduction, the CRJ900 order book shows firm entries for just 41 airplanes, all from a single regional airline, while the larger Embraer 190–just starting its flight-test program–has drawn a firm order for 100 airplanes and an LOI for another 40. More significant, the interest has come from the discount-fare and major airline segments so coveted by both regional jet builders.

Bombardier apparently now recognizes that if it wants to compete for that business, it will have to develop an all-new design, and one that can offer more than a slight cost advantage over the established competition. How much of the BRJ-X work Bombardier can apply to the new airplane remains unclear, especially given that during the studies into the failed project, it managed to engineer only a 6-percent advantage in operating costs over existing designs. This latest project calls for a 15-percent gain–a target Ridolfi admitted sounds lofty, but necessary.

“When you do an airplane program, you’re in it for the long run, and you have to be well ahead of the curve to produce the right operating economics,” he said. “We didn’t think we got there [with the BRJ-X]. We want to be at that 15-percent number so it’s almost an unassailable position. We know the yield pressure; we know costs have to come down; we know airplanes have to be replaced by airplanes that can make the case for a new capital acquisition.”

The company has assigned long-time Bombardier Aerospace engineer John Holding to the new commercial aircraft division to lead the studies. “I’d say right now we’re looking at a clean sheet of paper,” said Ridolfi, declining to speculate on weight, thrust and price targets. “We clearly have some ideas, and various groups have various biases, as you would expect.”

In any case, studies aimed at lightening airframe components will account for much of the effort toward cutting operating costs. A lighter airframe translates into smaller engines and lower fuel burn, a goal that will no doubt center on the use of composites, work on which has already reached a fairly advanced stage after three years of study at Bombardier’s Shorts facility in Belfast, N. Ireland.

“We’ve actually produced full-scale applications–flaps, ailerons, those kinds of things– using a technique called resin transfer molding (RTM),” said Ridolfi. Although the work has centered on wing parts, the technology can easily apply to larger components, as well as improvements to the CRJ line, he added.

But Bombardier will likely need to rely on more than proprietary technology to meet its launch goal. For example, Glare fiber-metal laminate developed by Delft University of Technology and selected for the Airbus A380 seems a likely candidate. Ridolfi would not comment on the prospects of Bombardier negotiating the rights to any processes under study by Boeing for its new 7E7, however.

Bombardier’s recent hiring of former Boeing and CAE executive Gary Scott to direct the new program sparked conjecture in the Canadian press of a plan to create a joint venture with Boeing specifically to give Bombardier access to composite technology. Bombardier called the reports “pure speculation,” but Boeing Commercial Airplanes president Alan Mulally recently confirmed his company has served as a “consultant” to Bombardier.

On the issue of containing development costs, however, Bombardier plans to adopt the model for the 7E7 and its own business aircraft, where suppliers assume full responsibility for the design of their respective contributions and integrate much of the airplane components before they reach the final assembly line. Bombardier has begun discussions with the program’s potential partners, most of which would need to submit final proposals before the March target for authority to offer from the board. Ridolfi said the airplane would use an all-new engine design by one of the three major powerplant builders, all of which the company expects to bid on the project.

“We’ve learned a lot. Unlike what we used to do 10 or 15 years ago when we effectively did the whole airplane, we put much more of the design and integration task on to the partners. So, yes, we’ll be counting on [the partners] not just to improve the technology and the operating cost, but also to pull down capital costs.”

Regardless of the extent to which risk-sharing partners pay for the airplane’s development, the Canadian government will certainly play a vital role in R&D funding. Ridolfi said Bombardier hasn’t started negotiating with the government over the proposal. He also declined to comment on speculation over development costs, ranging anywhere from $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion. “It’s just too soon to tell,” he added. “But [funding] will certainly be a big issue.”