Executives at Airbus Group SE, the world's biggest plane maker, dismissed the Bombardier C Series jet as an "orphan" and said that talks between the two companies aimed at propping up the struggling Canadian aircraft are dead.
Speaking at Airbus's annual press conference Tuesday in Paris, John Leahy, Airbus's chief salesman and commercial officer, called the C Series "a nice little plane" that was probably forever doomed to be a poor seller.
The long-delayed plane, which was officially launched in 2008 and is to enter service with Swiss International Airlines by the summer, has secured only 243 firm orders. No fresh order has been booked in almost a year and a half, triggering a funding crisis that recently saw the Quebec government and the province's pension fund pump $2.5-billion (U.S.) into the C Series and Bombardier's train division to help give the parent company, Bombardier Inc. of Montreal, enough liquidity to support the new plane's development and marketing.
Mr. Leahy claimed the C Series lacks a competitive advantage because both Airbus and arch-rival Boeing have launched new versions of their workhorse single-aisle jets, the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 Max, that will come equipped with more fuel-efficient engines, if not airframes, than their predecessor versions.
"The trouble is that, when Airbus moved to the neo and Boeing moved to the Max, the reasons for the C Series evaporated because they were trying to be 15 per cent more fuel efficient than an A320 or a 737," Mr. Leahy said. "Now that we have done our improvement to the [A320] product, they're sitting there with essentially a me-too airplane without a very strong support network. … So they build a nice airplane but I think it's a one-off. It's going to be very difficult to sell."
His description of the C Series as an "orphan," he said, referred to its small-family status; so far, it will come in only two versions – the CS100 and the larger CS300 – that will seat about 100 to 150 passengers. "It's a one-off, it's not a real family," he said. "With Boeing or Airbus, you get different variants. You get the Airbus 318, 319, 320, 321 and you get a product support network around the world."
Last year, as new orders for the C Series dried up, Bombardier hoped to recruit Airbus as a partner for the plane. Since non-disclosure agreements were signed, the nature of a potential deal is not known. But the talks were thought to have focused on essentially giving the C Series to Airbus in exchange for access to Airbus's global supplier and marketing network and a commitment to maintain production in Quebec.
When asked on the sidelines of the Airbus conference if the talks with Bombardier were dead, Mr. Leahy said, "for now, absolutely." There is speculation that Bombardier either has, or intends to, approach Boeing or Embraer, the Brazilian aerospace company that makes a family of small passenger jets.
Bombardier maintains that the C Series is a potential hot seller even though sales have been thin and the plane is two years late and more than $2-billion over budget. In November, the company said it could sell as many as 3,500 of the planes – half of the estimated 7,000 planes to be sold in that size category – in the next 20 years.
Tom Williams, Airbus's chief operating officer, said Bombardier will have to invest heavily in the C Series over the long haul if it hopes to make it a success. "If you take a 10- or 15-year view, if you're willing to invest in customer financing, training, spares, residual-value guarantees et cetera, that needs a lot of deep pockets and a long-term commitment," he said.
Bombardier is relying on Quebec government and pension fund support to bolster the C Series program and is seeking support from the federal government, too.
In an interview before Christmas, Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao said Bombardier, and aerospace more generally, represent strategic pillars in the province's economy and that the government will "continue to find ways to support them." Abandoning public aid for those strategic industries would invite other jurisdictions to swoop in to try to woo Quebec companies away, he said.
At the press conference, Airbus rolled out sales figures that showed its A320 family of aircraft has taken the lead over the Boeing 737 models in the single-aisle market. Mr. Leahy said the A320 family now controls almost 60 per cent of that market. In 2015, Airbus gained 897 net new orders for the A320 planes and delivered 491 of them.
Mr. Williams said one of the reasons the A320s have been such strong sellers is that they were upgraded in response to the potential threat from the C Series.
With files from reporter Nicolas Van Praet in Montreal.
AIRBUS OUTSELLS BOEING
Europe's Airbus is unperturbed by China's financial turmoil, sticking to robust demand forecasts on Tuesday after beating arch-rival Boeing in the annual tally of global aircraft orders, despite failing to close a gap on total deliveries with the world's largest jetmaker.
As share prices and oil prices steadied after weeks of volatility, Airbus maintained its confidence in demand that underpins plans for record production rates at both companies.
Despite a recent sell-off in markets in China, where Airbus has an assembly plant, the Chinese continue to spend on aviation, planemaking chief Fabrice Bregier said.
"It's a sign that the vision you have that share prices drop and everything collapses is disconnected from the real economy, he said at the company's annual news conference.
Swelling its total order book to a record $1 trillion, Airbus added 1,036 new plane orders net of cancellations last year, down 29 percent from 2014, compared with Boeing's tally of 768, a fall of 46 percent. (Graphic: http://reut.rs/1P2W6fI)
Both planemakers experienced a slowdown after two years of heavy orders, and amid concerns over the impact of economic jitters and low oil prices on demand for fuel-saving jets.
Despite that, deliveries of popular models grew, reflecting industry forecasts of persistent growth in traffic.
Airbus deliveries edged up to 635 in 2015 and it predicted over 650 in 2016, to be outstripped once again by new orders.
Boeing said last week its deliveries rose 5 percent to a record 762 jets, extending its lead as the largest producer.
Combined deliveries came in a whisker below 1,400, having doubled in the past decade, and Airbus planemaking chief Fabrice Bregier said the latest data showed the market was "resilient."
Airlines "do not expect oil prices to stay low forever," he said.