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Passengers disembark an Air Canada Jazz flight after flying on a Canadair Regional Jet in Prince George in 2008.

JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL

Bombardier Inc. is weighing options for a new engine on its regional jets in a move that could give its commercial aircraft lineup a boost until its flagship C Series starts making money, people familiar with the matter said.

The plane maker is analyzing how it can update its family of Canadair Regional Jets to make them more enticing for airline customers in the years ahead, according to the people, who asked not to be named because they aren't authorized to speak publicly about the review. In the absence of funds for an all-new, clean-sheet design for a regional jet, the company is exploring a big overhaul of its existing 60- to 100-seat CRJ planes centred on new engines, the people said.

"[Bombardier has] to do something" with the CRJ aircraft, said Richard Aboulafia of aerospace consultancy Teal Group. "The idea of using an eighties vintage engine in the next century when everyone else has adopted new technology, that's just a non-starter."

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For Bombardier, modernizing its regional jets with new engines could be the quickest and least-costly way to fire up profits at its commercial aircraft unit while it waits for the larger C Series jet to generate consistent returns, analysts say. The company does not expect the C Series, an all-new family of airliners that seats up to 160 passengers, to break even on a pretax profit basis until 2020.

Once the mainstay of its passenger-plane product roster, Bombardier's regional jets are today used by more than 100 airlines operating about 200,000 flights a month. In North America alone, they account for one in every five jets taking off.

The plane maker has won firm orders for more than 1,900 CRJ aircraft, but sales have slowed in recent years as the company shifted its attention and investment dollars to develop the C Series. On Tuesday, it announced the a deal to sell six CRJ900s to CityJet, an Irish carrier that flies to smaller airports in Europe. CityJet also took options to acquire four more aircraft.

Bryan Tucker, a Bombardier spokesperson, denied that any analysis is taking place regarding new motors for the regional jets.

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"We are not actively looking at re-engining the plane," he said via email. "We are happy with the performance of the plane and it is very successful in its markets."

However, sources maintain that an analysis has been under way on the CRJs for several months.

Following the success of the original CRJ100 and CRJ200 jets, Bombardier produced bigger versions and in 2007, made improvements to the economics and cabin with the NexGen CRJs. The plane maker recently began offering a modernized cabin for the aircraft that included bigger overhead bins and windows. But the basic design of the jets hasn't changed since the first CRJ100 entered service in 1992 and they're still powered by enhanced versions of the same General Electric CF34 engine.

One option for the CRJ is GE's Passport, a turbofan engine under development that's set to power Bombardier's new Global 7000/8000 business aircraft. Another is Pratt & Whitney's PW800, the first variants of which were certified in 2015 to power Gulfstream's G500/600 private jets.

Officials with GE did not respond to a request for comment. Isabelle Gagné, a spokesperson for Pratt & Whitney Canada, declined to comment on the matter directly beyond saying the company stays close to its customers and is in regular discussions with them.

When asked about a possible re-engine effort for the CRJs, Bombardier commercial aerospace president Fred Cromer emphasized that the company is happy with the aircraft. The jets offer an up to 10-per-cent advantage on operating costs compared with rivals, according to Bombardier's website.

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"I think if you talk to some of our larger operators, they'll tell you it's one of the most economic airplanes that they fly in their fleet of regional aircraft," Mr. Cromer said, noting the cabin updates made recently.

The plane maker is under no immediate pressure to modernize the aircraft from a competitive standpoint. That's because so-called scope clauses – the provisions in U.S. airline pilot contracts that limit the weight and capacity of planes flown by regional affiliates for mainline carriers – are currently benefiting Bombardier while hurting rival manufacturers like Embraer and Mitsubishi.

Under current scope clauses, the maximum seat limit for regional feeder aircraft in the United States is 76 while the maximum take off weight is 86,000 pounds. New regional jets made by Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (the MRJ90) and Brazil's Embraer SA (the E175-E2) both exceed that weight limit.

Some analysts say that without a significant refresh of technology, Bombardier's CRJs will likely continue to lose market share even if rivals stumble. "The plane is cost effective and cheap and they can make them fast so that's great," one analyst said. "But that's the world today and not the world tomorrow. They need to have something different."

The plane maker booked orders for 19 CRJ planes through the first nine months of 2016, including orders from China's Industrial Bank Financial Leasing Co. and Canada's Chorus Aviation, worth a combined $701-million (U.S.) at list prices. The production backlog stood at 60 CRJ planes as of Sept. 30, 2016.

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