Bombardier will seek to build momentum at the Farnborough Air Show for its CSeries jet, a new narrowbody seating 110 to 149 passengers that would compete with Boeing's 737 and Airbus's A320.
Both Boeing and Airbus will train a keen eye at the Farnborough Air Show on one upstart competitor: Bombardier of Canada.
Until now a manufacturer of smaller regional and business jets, Bombardier is looking for momentum at the show that could launch its 110- to 149-seat passenger jet, known as the CSeries.
The launch would be both bold and risky, taking on the highly successful Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 — a class of narrow-body jets where for decades the two big aerospace companies have had the market to themselves.
After several delays, Bombardier this year began marketing to airlines a CSeries concept plane built from advanced materials — an aluminum-lithium alloy fuselage and a carbon-fiber-reinforced, plastic composite wing and tail.
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The jet would feature the innovative — but still unproven — geared turbofan (GTF) engine from Pratt & Whitney, which promises to be at least 12 percent more fuel-efficient than current engines.
Boeing and Airbus may have left open a market window for the CSeries, which would enter service in 2013. The aerospace giants have pushed out their successor jets to the 737 and A320 to around 2018-2020.
Even if the official CSeries launch doesn’t happen at the show, a crop of significant orders at Farnborough could build momentum for a go-ahead later this year. Speculation has focused on China Southern, Qatar Airways and Lufthansa as potential launch airlines.
Aviation sage Steven Udvar-Hazy, chief of aircraft-leasing giant International Lease Finance Corp. (ILFC), said in February that if some major airlines buy the CSeries, he’s ready to order it too.
At last year’s Paris Air Show, Bombardier announced a preliminary agreement with China Aviation Industry Corp., known as AVIC1, calling for the state-run aircraft manufacturer to invest $400 million in the plane and to build major components in China.
Tuesday at Farnborough, Bombardier and AVIC1 will present an update to that agreement. On Monday, Pratt & Whitney will unveil the GTF engine, freshly cleared to begin flight tests.
If Bombardier takes the plunge with its CSeries, there will be no shortage of skepticism.
The jet’s success depends entirely on Pratt’s GTF engine proving itself not only fuel-efficient but also as reliable and easily maintained as the current narrow-body turbofans.
Rival engine-maker General Electric (GE), for example, says the gearbox used on the GTF to reduce fuel burn is simply a bad idea. Though Pratt has developed a high-tech lubricant, GE argues that metal still touches metal as the gears engage, producing heat and wear.
The fear is a GTF would not be as robust as today’s mature narrow-body engines.
“What drove the world to the turbofan is the fact that we eliminated metal-on-metal contact,” said Scott Donnelly, then-CEO of GE Aviation, at a March conference in Orlando, Fla. “We’ve looked at a gearfan. … I don’t see the reward side. I see only the risk side.”
Aviation-industry analyst Scott Hamilton, of Leeham.net, said he has spoken to two prospective customers who are concerned GTF maintenance costs would be much higher than for regular turbofans.
He also believes Boeing and Airbus would respond aggressively to a CSeries launch.
“Think of the price discounting they could do on the A320 and 737,” said Hamilton. Airlines in the market for that size plane could also expect special deals on bigger Boeing and Airbus jets if they excluded Bombardier.
“The CSeries will in some respects be an orphan,” said Hamilton. “There’s no big brother [for an airline] to grow into.”
Richard Aboulafia, industry analyst with the Teal Group, sees the CSeries as the crucial testing ground for the Pratt engine. If it works well, he believes Boeing and Airbus will have to look closely at the GTF for their next jet.
Launch or no launch, Farnborough could prove decisive.
“If [Bombardier] doesn’t come up with any kind of respectable customers announcements, that’s the death knell for the CSeries,” said Aboulafia.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com