While much of the air transport world’s focus remains fixed on Bombardier’s C Series partnership with Airbus, the Canadian manufacturer continues to express confidence that its legacy regional jet line will win more sales as the sector’s aircraft replacement cycle accelerates in the coming years.
“I think the replacement cycle is real and I think it’s coming, and we’re well positioned,” insisted Bombardier Commercial Aircraft president Fred Cromer.
Key drivers include fuel prices, aircraft age, and an “up-gauging” trend that has resulted in, for example, 70-seat aircraft replacing 50-seat regional jets. Fuel has stayed relatively cheap since mid-2014, which has helped make 50-seat RJs marginally economical to operate. Eventually, though, their operators will park them, and Cromer sees room for the CRJ900 and 1000 series to gain traction.
“If you look at the fleet plans of the major airlines, they’ve continued to see over time phasing those out and up-gauging to larger aircraft, which we think benefits primarily the CRJ900,” he said during the manufacturer's recent investor day.
Bombardier expects the CRJ’s new Atmosphere cabin to boost sales campaigns. Unveiled in September and slated to appear on customer aircraft starting in mid-2018, the new cabin reflects a response to customer calls for a more appealing interior.
“We canvassed the marketplace and we talked about the specific requirements as our customer base [looks] forward on the CRJ,” said Cromer. “Overwhelmingly, the answer was on making a better solution to get more cabin stowage and refresh the interior.”
The most noticeable changes include larger overhead bins that can accomodate more bags, cutting down on plane-side bag checks. Other additions include in-seat power and standard mood lighting.
While timing of a sales uptick remains elusive, Bombardier remains adamant that a major opportunity resides in the large regional-aircraft space. Its most recent forecast projects demand for 5,750 sixty- to 100-seat aircraft through 2036.
Near-term, however, its outlook appears less sanguine. Bombardier expects a total of 50 deliveries in 2017 for its CRJ and Q400 product lines; it delivered four CRJs in the third quarter and 19 in the nine months through September 30, while its CRJ backlog stood at 43. It projects next year’s deliveries for its non-C Series commercial aircraft total just 35.
“We obviously had a backlog and we're producing that backlog and we didn't have as many orders going forward,” Cromer said. “Now we've had recent traction on the Q400, and the challenge that we have right now is in that replacement cycle that I talked about on the CRJ, specifically...what does that look like going forward and when will it take place?”
Cromer explained that the CRJ line’s efficiency, established over more than two decades, allows Bombardier to quickly increase or decrease rates as needed without producing white tails. “We have the ability to flex that according to the demand that we see,” he said. “And on a go-forward basis, I think we do see opportunity, more opportunity than what's reflected in next year's deliveries, as an example.”
Cromer also said that while the joint-venture deal between Airbus and Bombardier does not affect the CRJ program, he would not rule out collaboration down the road. “That JV will be a standalone JV with the C Series,” he said. “However, I think having that JV with Airbus as a partner strengthens all of commercial aircraft and certainly can open doors for new opportunities where we may not see them today.”