Bombardier’s Chinese ties tighten in C Series program

Singapore Air Show » 2010
January 28, 2010, 4:02 AM

Given China’s standing as the world’s third largest market for commercial airplanes, it should have come as little surprise when Bombardier moved to consolidate its foothold in the People’s Republic with a proposal to collaborate on the indigenous ARJ21-900 regional jet during the 2007 Paris Air Show. Two-and-a-half years later the memorandum of understanding it signed with China’s then-largest aerospace conglomerate, AVIC I, has yet to yield the level of cooperation Bombardier envisioned, however. Today, development of the ARJ21-900–the airplane Bombardier promised to help develop–has come to a halt, as the Chinese focus their energies on the more ambitious C919, a 150- to 200-seat narrowbody meant to compete directly with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.

Happily for Bombardier, the part of the deal that called for the Chinese to invest as much as $400 million in the C Series airliner family survives in the form of a separate supply agreement with Shenyang Aircraft, the designated maker of the Canadian narrowbody’s aluminum-lithium fuselage barrels and doors. Shenyang’s contribution will account for roughly 10 percent of the entire structural work package for the both the 100- to 125-seat CS110 and 120- to 145-seat CS300–
airplanes the Canadian company has declared perfectly suited for the Chinese market.

“We think there’s a big opportunity for the C Series in China,” Bombardier Commercial Aircraft president Gary Scott told AIN during a pre-Singapore show interview. Scott said that Bombardier has spoken with “virtually every airline” in China. “Some of those discussions are advancing,” he said. “We’re also talking to not just airlines, but [Chinese] leasing companies.”

Scott noted that China plans to build 40 new airports “in the near term,” many in the western part of the country. “The airplane itself is just ideally suited to tap into the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, which in China are huge,” said Scott. “And, of course, it brings all the economic [benefits]–20 percent better fuel burn and 15 percent better cash operating cost as well as a much reduced environmental footprint.”

Still, the ability to actually deliver those benefits to the Chinese market will require more than simply building and supporting the airplane. As most every Western OEM has come to appreciate, maintaining and cultivating relationships with Chinese industry can prove as important as making a product that the country’s airlines want to buy. So when Bombardier awarded Shenyang Aircraft contracts to build most of the fuselage, it did so with strategic as well as cost and quality considerations in mind.

In fact, Shenyang will also supply some of the composite content of the airplane, namely the center wing box, which comes as part of the mid-fuselage section. It will build the part “in close coordination” with Bombardier’s Short Brothers subsidiary in Belfast, Northern Ireland–the Canadian group’s composites specialist. The Chinese manufacturer will also supply the airplane’s aluminum keel beam, which until recently Bombardier had planned to make out of composites. “When we looked at the maintenance costs and the weight benefits and the manufacturing costs, metallic came out ahead of composites,” said Scott.

Still, composites will account for some 46 percent of the C Series’ structure, while so-called advanced materials, including the aluminum-lithium used in the fuselage, account for some 70 percent of the airplane Scott explained that the $400 million originally identified as China’s contribution to the C Series never involved a direct cash infusion, but rather investment in plant and equipment. Although he didn’t know the precise figure, China has spent “a considerable amount” so far, he said.

“Our relationship has evolved,” he said. “We haven’t done any more with the MOU per se, but our relationship is very close through the C Series.” The original MOU, signed in Paris in 2007, had identified Shanghai Aircraft, which the Chinese government has since rolled into Comac, as the supplier of fuselage parts for the C Series. Since then Comac has assumed responsibility for both the ARJ21 and the C919, and the recently re-merged AVIC supplies parts for both programs. A second MOU, signed during the 2008 Farnborough airshow, called for Shenyang to take responsibility for the C Series’ center fuselage section. Since then, Bombardier has awarded the front and aft fuselage sections to Shenyang as well.

Powerplant Progress
Closer to home, Pratt & Whitney’s work on the C Series’ engine, formerly known as the Geared Turbofan “has gone very well,” according to Scott, who admitted to some anxiety over the fact that so few complications have surfaced during the integration of the PW1524Gs. “In some ways you want a few problems just to make sure they’re behind you instead of ahead of you,” he said.

Pratt promises that the combination of the engine’s gear system and all-new core will deliver double-digit improvements in fuel efficiency and environmental emissions and a 50-percent reduction in noise compared with the latest existing designs.

“Now we’re in the phase where [the engines are] defined, and they’re building the first real production engine that will go into test,” said Scott. The engines for the C Series, thrust rated at 23,300 pounds, are to enter flight testing this spring, he added.

Mirabel Assembly Complex Grows
Along with other suppliers, Pratt & Whitney has agreed to colocate a final assembly line for the C Series engines in Mirabel, Canada, where Bombardier last year broke ground on what it calls the Complete Integrated Aircraft Systems Test Area (CIASTA)–a testing and proving facility that will house a “virtual” C Series test aircraft designed to assess systems for reliability and functionality a full year before the first prototype flies.

Also the site of CRJ final assembly, the Mirabel complex will expand in six phases, said Scott, and eventually grow to include two more C Series final assembly halls, a new pre-flight and flight operations facility, supplier satellite facilities, a paint facility and customer delivery center. New construction will also house more administration offices and a flight test center hangar.

“We think we’ll need to build 3,000 of these airplanes, and we’ll need to go to a day rate, so roughly 20 aircraft per month,” said Scott.  Bombardier plans to reach that level of production by the end of 2016–some three years after the company expects the first CS100 to enter service. Development of the SC300 lags roughly a year behind the CS100, suggesting service entry for the larger airplane in 2014.

By mid-December Bombardier had drawn firm orders for 30 CS100s from Lufthansa along with 17 CS300s and three CS100s from Dublin-based Lease Corporation International.   

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