The only surprise about Bombardier's move to surrender control of the C Series to one or the other member of the planet's big-airplane duopoly is that it took this long.
During this nearly two-decade-long saga, the odds were always stacked against Bombardier. Its decision to try to take on Airbus and Boeing on their own turf – the 100-plus seat jet category – always contained an element of sheer recklessness. Betting the house on a product that sought to eat into the market share of its rich and ruthless rivals was not the kind of provocation Bombardier could ever afford to make on its own. That is now painfully clear as Canada's national aerospace champion hands the C Series controls to Airbus for not even so much as a symbolic $1.
Sure, it's fine to celebrate Bombardier's innovative spirit and sheer bloody-mindedness in pursuing the C Series dream. And from an engineering perspective, the C Series is a truly beautiful machine.
But its move to cede control of the C Series now for zero cash seems like an act of desperation. Airbus's undertaking to keep the C Series program and the current jobs associated with it based in Quebec is, like most such agreements, unenforceable. If C Series sales fail to take off, or a downturn hits the entire aerospace sector, as it surely will at some point, guess which jobs will go first?
That it has come to this is hardly a shocker to industry experts. Many believe Bombardier was never on solid enough ground to make this plane a commercial success. The company first conceded that in 2000. That's when, under CEO Bob Brown, it first abandoned plans to enter the 100-plus-seat market with a plane, then dubbed the BRJ-X, that it had introduced at Britain's Farnborough Air Show in 1998. It took a second go at Airbus and Boeing a few years later by restarting the program – with a new name, the C Series – and hiring former Boeing executive Gary Scott to pilot the design and commercialization. It bet on Airbus and Boeing being too busy focusing on bigger planes to even notice.
It was dead wrong. While Boeing and Airbus did opt to simply overhaul their respective families of single-aisle jets with new engines, rather than design entirely new plans like Bombardier, they were not about to cede the lower end of the market to this Canadian upstart. Especially when Bombardier, which had never fully recovered from the post-2001 downturn of the airline industry, looked as vulnerable as it did.
Bombardier put the C Series program on hold again in 2006. But Laurent Beaudoin, scion of the Bombardier-Beaudoin family that controls the company, could never give up the dream. Within a year, the C Series was back on the agenda and governments in Canada and Britain stepped up with cash.
Only company insiders know how seriously Mr. Beaudoin or his successor as chief executive officer, son Pierre Beaudoin, pursued a partnership with Boeing or Airbus back then. But it's clear now that such a move would have been much smarter than trying to go it alone. By developing a new plane in partnership with either of its bigger rivals, Bombardier may have been able to negotiate from a stronger position. By the time it tried to lure Airbus into a deal in 2015, it was no longer in a position to call the shots.
As for Bombardier's vaunted research and development division, the biggest in Corporate Canada, much uncertainty remains. What's left to develop after the C Series? Will Airbus give Bombardier the green light to proceed with the design of an even bigger version of the C Series? Or will it protect the market for its own A320neo, the closest plane to the C Series in the Airbus family of jets?
If there is any consolation for Canadians in this deal it is that Boeing appears to have been hoisted with its own petard. After Bombardier's 2015 flirtation with Airbus, Boeing may have undertaken its trade complaint against the C Series in the expectation that some kind of tie up between Bombardier and Boeing's European nemesis was inevitable. Ironically, a partnership between Bombardier and Boeing arguably made more sense, since Boeing's 737 MAX (its closest rival to the C Series) has had limited success compared to the runaway success of A320neo.
By launching its trade case, Boeing ended up driving Bombardier into Airbus's arms. And this time, Bombardier was in an even weaker negotiating position than in 2015. With Airbus now in control, not only has Boeing failed to neutralize its Canadian upstart. It risks seeing Airbus control an even bigger share of the 100- to 150-seat plane market.
Somebody's dream is coming true. Just not Bombardier's.