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Cockpit windows of a Bombardier CRJ1000 business jet are seen at the Paris Air Show in Paris, France, on Wednesday, June 22, 2011.Fabrice Dimier/Bloomberg

Earlier this month, two Bombardier Inc. executives sat in the cabin of a nearly finished 76-seat regional jet destined for American Airlines and talked up the plane in superlatives.

This is the best interior configuration Bombardier has ever done on a CRJ regional airliner, the aerospace managers said. The best mix of seat pitch, materials and "overall harmony." It has more leg room in economy than a typically configured Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, they insisted. And it can accommodate more seats than Embraer's E-175, which means higher revenue potential per flight.

It's been a while since Hugues Lessard, vice-president of Bombardier's CRJ program, and Jean-François Tessier, director of CRJ program strategy, beat the drum this hard to visitors of the plane maker's assembly plant in Mirabel, Que.

For some time, the market has stopped paying much attention to Bombardier's Canadair regional jets. With just over 1,800 orders since the planes first flew in 1991, the airliners remain to this day arguably Canada's greatest aerospace achievement. Yet with all the scrutiny in recent years directed at Bombardier's C Series – the company's biggest-ever plane and biggest bet – the CRJs have largely fallen out of mind.

But a resurrection is at hand.

Not only does Bombardier insist it will keep producing the CRJ aircraft family for another decade at least, the company says it is committing a yet-undisclosed amount of money to improve the planes further. And that has some investors and analysts worried.

"Right or wrong, the C Series has been taking centre stage" in recent years, Mr. Lessard said. "But as [that airplane] is coming out the tail end of its development period, obviously this is going to create more opportunity" for other aircraft programs such as this one.

At a projected development cost of $5.4-billion, the C Series has now completed 80 per cent of its high-risk testing and remains on track for certification before the end of 2015. Bolstered by $2.4-billion of fresh capital, Bombardier now has $6.2-billion in cash and available credit, "more than sufficient liquidity" to carry it through the C Series launch and beyond, according to RBC Capital Markets.

Among the CRJ modifications Bombardier is testing is an improvement to the aircraft's wings, including the winglets, taking advantage of computerized modelling to identify potential improvements to aerodynamics and reduce drag, Mr. Tessier said. The current CRJ900 model, the most popular in the lineup, offers a 5.5-per-cent improved fuel burn over the initial units delivered in 2003. Bombardier thinks it can wring another 4.5 per cent worth, for a double-digit fuel burn betterment by 2020.

"We know that it is possible for us to improve further," Mr. Lessard said. "There's a lot of stuff we could do to that airplane to improve it."

Even small upgrades are significant because they can generate big savings for operators. For example, the conic-shaped exhaust nozzles Bombardier installed on its CRJ900 NextGen aircraft cut fuel consumption by 1 per cent. To an airline, that's $50,000 a year in savings per plane.

Bombardier believes the market for regional airplanes seating 60 to 99 passengers will remain attractive at an estimated 5,600 aircraft worth $185-billion over the next 20 years. Half of those will be turboprops and half-jets, meaning the company has an opportunity to snag as many as 1,400 CRJ sales over that time if it wins half of all new orders. "There's still a huge market there in front of us," Mr. Lessard said.

Despite the enthusiasm in Mirabel, skepticism abounds on Bay Street.

"We don't see sufficient demand for a sustainably higher production run rate," BMO analyst Fadi Chamoun said in a Feb. 22 note, adding he believes both Bombardier's Q400 turboprop and CRJ programs are money-losing at current manufacturing levels. "In the absence of the company launching a new regional product, there may be additional downside going forward given stronger product offerings from competitors."

"We were somewhat concerned with the fact that Bombardier mentioned more than once that they plan to continue to invest in the CRJ program," Scotiabank analyst Turan Quettawala said in a March 13 note summing up his own visit to the Mirabel plant. "We think this could require a large investment – money that, in our view, could be better spent on other aircraft."

The market for regional jet sales peaked in the mid-2000s. Since then, it's been a constant battle for sales.

While Bombardier began freeing up funds in recent years to plow into its C Series, rival Embraer invested capital to develop its line of E-Jets, which outsold Bombardier during some years. The diameter of the Embraer fuselages is bigger than the Bombardiers and the seats themselves are wider, a feature appreciated by heavier customers who prize cabin space and lateral comfort above the leg room advantage Bombardier is able to offer with its stretched aircraft.

"The CRJs are a skinnier tube and a skinnier tube goes through the air more effectively," said Rolland Vincent, a former Bombardier executive who now runs his own consultancy from Plano, Tex. "It is a more efficient airframe to go through the sky. With the Embraer E-Jets, you get more comfort."

Neither Bombardier nor Embraer has delivered more than 100 regional jet units in any year since 2008, according to data from U.S. consultancy Air Insight. Meanwhile, new competitors such as Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi have sprung up to challenge the traditional duopoly.

Embraer is now focused on the next version of its E-Jets, the E2 family, committing $1.7-billion to revamping the planes with improved engines among other improvements. The company snagged 210 orders for the new planes in 2013 and 2014, nearly tripling the regional jet orders Bombardier received over that time.

Bombardier has proven it can still win major contracts, such as Mesa's options conversion in December worth $1.1-billion at list prices. However, new CRJ orders are trailing deliveries with uncompleted production now standing at about 20 months. BMO Capital Markets estimates that with its CRJ jets and excluding the C Series, the company holds barely 9 per cent of the world's current regional jet firm order backlog, with rivals Sukhoi, Mitsubishi, Comac and Embraer all tallying more orders.

Still, Bombardier remains optimistic about the CRJ's future prospects.

Executives argue every CRJ jet version delivers a 5- to 15-per-cent operating cost advantage over competing jets simply because they're lighter and burn less fuel. Replacing the existing General Electric engines on the plane with new ones might deliver even better operating numbers. But the new generation of engines are heavier and Bombardier seems to be in no rush to make the change.

The executives say if major U.S. airlines further relax their so-called "scope clauses," which restrict the capacity of regional aircraft flying for network carriers to 76 seats, the Bombardier planes would be an even easier sell in the marketplace. Historical trends suggest that will happen, although the timing is uncertain.

"It all comes down to how much they can do with the existing airframe to improve the economics," Air Insight's Ernie Arvai said. "You add up enough little improvements and you can make it so the airplane can survive for a while. The thing the CRJ is focusing on is being the lightest, cheapest thing out there. And there is a niche for that."