Talking Planes, and the Future of the CRJ, with Bombardier’s Commercial Aircraft Marketing Boss
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It’s been a tumultuous year for Bombardier, the fourth-biggest maker of commercial aircraft in the world behind Boeing, Airbus and Embraer. It began with the US Trade Commission overturning a complaint by Boeing that would have resulted in a 292% tariff on deliveries of its C Series jets to US airlines, effectively killing the Canadian company’s newest product on the US market.
The C Series program was then taken over by Airbus. The plane is now renamed the A220, a joint venture between Bombardier and Airbus, which will be responsible for the marketing and manufacturing of the advanced, single-aisle passenger jet. The first commercial success for the plane under Airbus management has been a big order for 60 from the new, and as yet unnamed, US-based airline led by JetBlue founder David Neeleman — as well as another similar order from JetBlue. Good news, but not necessarily for Bombardier, whose employees at Montreal’s Mirabel airport could only watch from across the ramp as Airbus delivered the first A220-100 of an order of 75 aircraft to Delta Air Lines. At this point, the airplane formerly known as the Bombardier CS100 is no longer their product.
Then, on November 8, Bombardier announced the sale of the Q-series turboprop program — including the speedy Q400, most often seen by US fliers in the colors of Alaska Airlines — to Canadian-based Longview Aviation Capital. The company is also selling its business jet flight training division to simulator manufacturer CAE. Bombardier described these transactions as “the sale of a number of non-core assets, in line with its strategy of focusing on growth opportunities in its Transportation [rail], Business Aircraft and Aerostructures segments.”
So now Bombardier finds itself making just one commercial plane: the CRJ. The popular twinjet is a familiar sight to US fliers. American, United, Delta and Air Canada all fly its several versions, seating from 50 to around 90 people. The smaller, 50-seat variants are notoriously cramped, and used on short flights (the RJ in its name stands for “regional jet”.) The 70- and 90-seaters are more common in North America — and a little more spacious, in many cases enough for a small first-class cabin. No North American operators fly the largest, 100-seat version, the CRJ 1000.
The CRJs are now available with a revamped cabin, which Bombardier calls Atmosphere and says will greatly improve passenger experience. You can see it on some Delta flights. But the plane is by now a legacy product, with just a few dozen orders left in the book. It features engines of a previous generation to today’s, which burn more fuel compared to the Brazilian competition.
So it’s far from certain that the company will retain the CRJ program; according to media reports, it might end up selling it too, to concentrate on its other businesses. (Among other things, it makes New York City’s subway cars.)
Before the news of the sale of the turboprops broke, TPG contributor Howard Slutsken chatted with Patrick Baudis, Vice President of Marketing for Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, in his office at Mirabel Airport, north of Montreal.
How does it feel to see your airplane rolling out of the final assembly line here at Mirabel — as the Airbus A220?
From the Bombardier standpoint, it’s very emotional, of course. It’s like when you have a kid, and he leaves home. You wish him good luck, but he’s still your kid. And at the same time, you know that he’s no longer your responsibility.
How has the transition unfolded for the employees?
We had a period where were open in terms of who was going to be moving to the joint venture. And now the period’s over. The transition is almost finished between the two companies and we’ve done the knowledge transfer to the Airbus teams. It’s Airbus taking charge now that program with employees coming from Bombardier. It’s really a mix.
Does any crossover remain between Bombardier and the joint venture?
It’s two separate companies, and there are strict walls. Legally, that’s what we have to have and that’s what happened. We have no further contact with what’s happening on the A220 from my standpoint on the commercial side, and it’s the same for all functions.
Even here in the building, my badge doesn’t work on the A220 side, which is required. So, it’s two different companies. We run the business separately and I think the objectives are very different. We don’t tackle the same part of the market at all.
Arguably, over 25 years ago Bombardier introduced the concept of the regional jet, with the CRJ-series that was derived from the Challenger business jet. The planes brought jet service to new airports, but the experience wasn’t necessarily a passenger favorite. What is Bombardier doing to improve the perception of the newest CRJs?
If you want to transport 70 or 90 people, four abreast will be the best cross-section and the best compromise between drag and comfort. So yes, the size of the “tube,” if you wish, remains the same, but passenger expectations have changed. And we had to adapt.
Now people expect to travel with their rollaboards, and not gate check or check their luggage, so we needed bigger bins. Secondly, when we surveyed the market, airlines wanted to offer a seamless experience. It’s very important now for an airline to offer a similar passenger experience from the long haul to the medium haul to the short haul flights.
The third element that people expect is connectivity. They don’t expect a full In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) system on a CRJ’s one-hour flight, but at least to be able to stream to their own devices.
Fourth was improving the entrance of the CRJ and the size of the front lavatory. The fifth one we added is more contemporary styling and design.
People were expecting a change on the regional flying experience and that’s exactly what we are offering now with the Atmosphere cabin. It’s a game changing experience on the CRJ and people who’ve seen it say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this.’ It makes a huge difference. People feel way more comfortable. All the features we’ve introduced are completely changing the travel experience.
As of mid-year, you had about 60 CRJs in the order book. How is the market looking?
The market has been very up and down for everyone in this segment. I would say probably more down than up over the last couple of years. But we’re starting to see a wave of replacements, particularly in the biggest market with the regionals in North America.
We’re seeing emerging countries in the world where regional flying is starting, in Asia or Africa — the market is really booming for us. In Africa there’s a big wave of airlines that want to do it the right way, which is to first establish a strong national regional footprint before launching long-haul operations.
The CRJ platform is certainly mature. Now that you’ve refocused your efforts, will development continue on the aircraft? Would you ever consider re-engining the CRJ?
We have a philosophy at Bombardier of a continuous improvement of the product. We’ve just certified the CRJ at an 8,000-hour heavy maintenance interval, and the plane can now operate at +40 degrees Celsius, for hot and high airports.
We’re looking at many options and we know that we have to continue to invest in the product. I can’t tell you where it’s going to go, there’s many pieces of it, but we are definitely focusing on the platform to make sure that it is competitive for the next 15 to 20 years.
On the CRJ, we need to have the right technology available because we don’t do a re-engine for the sake of doing a re-engine. When we look at what’s available on the market today, what we need is a light engine with the efficiency that we see on much heavier engine. You know, people think, ‘Oh, I’m going to re-engine and that’s going to be the magic.’ It’s not easy. It’s not easy because physics is unfortunately a lot more complex than that.
If we can find the technology that will fit the plane, not penalize it in terms of weight, and bring fuel savings, we’ll go for it.
Featured image of a Delta Bombardier CRJ900 taking off from New York’s LGA airport by Alberto Riva/TPG