Mixed messages on future 150-seat market

  • 04-Aug-2008 04:53 EDT
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Bombardier's CSeries will include increased use of composites and aluminum in its structure, Pratt & Whitney's geared turbofan engine, fly-by-wire technology, and fourth-generation aerodynamics. 

One of the most talked-about subjects at this year’s Farnborough International air show was how the faltering civil market is likely to shape up over the coming years as airlines come face-to-face with the reality of high fuel prices and a growing incentive to replace outdated gas-guzzling jetliners. Initial airline reaction in the face of falling passenger numbers and rising fuel bills has been to cut routes, freeze pay levels, shed jobs, and store surplus aircraft. As immediate measures to avoid financial collapse, these actions seem inevitable, but they offer only a  stopgap that is second best to what is really needed—investment in new, more modern fleets.

New aircraft offer an opportunity not only to cut fuel costs and environmental damage, but they also introduce much lower through-life support costs than fleets designed in the 1970s. In the U.S. domestic market, there are still thousands of short-haul airliners that are showing their age, such as Boeing 737s and MD-80s. Elsewhere, these 130- to 150-seat aircraft have largely been replaced by newer model 737s and Airbus A320s, but now even these highly popular types, which dominate current sales and production, are facing competition as new powerplants and the advance of composite primary structures start to change the game.

With both Boeing and Airbus enjoying sales backlogs for their single-aisle 150-seat jetliners to around 2014, it is clear why they are in no hurry to replace these best-sellers in a marketplace where commercial risk is growing rather than retreating. Both aerospace giants are predicting a world requirement for over 16,000 new single-aisle aircraft over the next 20 years, and statements by senior company executives at Farnborough were bullish in the robustness of their forecasts despite all the gloom over environmental taxes and fuel costs. Compared to two years ago when it looked as if proposals for 737 and A320 replacements might be expected soon, with entry into service by 2014-15, both rivals are playing this down and suggesting that radical all-new designs may not arrive until 2020. In the meantime, upgraded products would be offered based on today’s airframes. But two factors may now upset these aims. One is the speeded-up need to introduce cleaner, more efficient engines, and the other is called the Bombardier CSeries.

The all-new 100- to 149-seat CSeries has re-emerged as a firm program after half a decade of studies. The key to the CSeries launch has been the availability of the Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engine, which offers fuel burn reductions of around 20%, plus up to 50% less NOx and 20% less CO2.

Bombardier could have the opportunity to replace thousands of existing aircraft ranging in size from the 100-seat BAe 146RJ, F100, and DC-9, up to the 150-seat MD-80, 737, and A320. By optimizing the CSeries at around 130 seats but reaching up to 150 in a modest stretch, Bombardier could offer a performance leap in terms of fuel economy and through-life support cost reductions. Airbus and Boeing may end up offering new aircraft optimized at around 200 to 250 seats to cater for increased demand on short-medium range trunk routes. This could have a major impact on forecast future sales figures. At the moment, the 150-seat market is the biggest in terms of future aircraft needs, but it may not be the most profitable size sector in the future especially if global airport and environmental constraints encourage more flights to be made by bigger aircraft to ease capacity issues.

Bombardier has secured a launch commitment for the CSeries from Lufthansa for up to 60 airplanes worth up to $2.8 billion. While falling short of being able to announce other firm orders, Bombardier says ILFC and Qatar Airways are very interested potential early signers.

For all the uncertainty in this sector of the market, the company believes there is a potential $2.8 trillion market to capture, and it wants at least half. The new airplane, which will be offered as a complete family with different capacity and range options, will be assembled at a new facility at Mirabel, Montreal, with the central fuselage being supplied from AVIC I in China and the wings from Shorts in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

By not chasing after the rival Embraer 170 and 195 in the late 1990s and deciding to tap into the bottom edge of the 150-seat market, Bombardier has suddenly become a major potential competitor to Airbus and Boeing in their own heartland, a situation that both companies say they will not leave unchallenged.

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