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This is not the first time Laurent Beaudoin has stared down the doubters wondering whether Bombardier Inc. can pull it off. But even he would likely admit that it could be the last time. The fate of Canada's global aerospace champion has never seemed so precarious.

At 77, Bombardier's still string-pulling patriarch and chairman emeritus is facing more doubters than he has in a five-decade career that saw him transform his father-in-law's humble Ski-Doo maker into the world's third-biggest civil aircraft maker and its largest train manufacturer outside China. The borderline speculative status of Bombardier's stock is proof enough of that.

Those who know Mr. Beaudoin best know better than to count him out. But news that Bombardier unsuccessfully held talks with Airbus about partnering on its struggling C Series jet – discussions that would have required Mr. Beaudoin's approval – fulfilled a prophecy made by many who warned Bombardier against entering Boeing and Airbus territory in the first place.

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The fate of the C Series has always depended on whether Airbus and Boeing would allow Bombardier to disrupt their cozy duopoly and cede part of the market for 100-plus-seat single-aisle planes to the Canadian interloper. For most aerospace experts, the answer was obvious from the start.

It never mattered how light, quiet or fuel-efficient Bombardier's engineers managed to make the C Series. What mattered was whether Airbus and Boeing indulged them. The assumption that the European and U.S. giants were ambivalent about investing in smaller jets while they grappled with launching the much larger A350 and 787, respectively, proved perilously wrong.

Not only did Airbus accelerate the development of a new generation of single-aisle planes, its new A320neo will be delivered to its first customer before the C Series is launched and will be using the ground-breaking geared turbofan Pratt & Whitney engine, for which Bombardier had aimed to be the first customer. The A320neo undercuts Bombardier's advantages on fuel efficiency and noise.

Airbus has more than 4,300 firm orders for the A320neo family, which includes the smaller A319neo that competes most directly with the C Series. Granted, sales of the A319neo have been anemic, but that's not because airlines are choosing the C Series, which has racked up only 243 firm orders and none in more than a year. Buyers such as Qatar Airlines, which considered the C Series, are opting for the 150-seat A320neo because that size of plane makes more sense.

Boeing, too, has developed its new 737 Max with a quieter and more fuel-efficient engine built by CFM International, a partnership between U.S.-based General Electric and France's Snecma. (The A320neo is also available with the CFM engine.) Boeing has more than 2,300 orders for the aircraft in the 737 Max family, including a firm order for 61 of the planes from Air Canada.

Sales of the somewhat larger 737 Max 8 and 9 have far outpaced those of the 737 Max 7, the most direct C Series rival with between 126 and 149 seats. But again, it's not because airlines prefer the C Series. Bombardier may have overestimated demand for planes in the 115- to 149-seat range, or Boeing and Airbus are convincing customers of the economics of bigger planes.

Selling a minority or majority stake in the C Series program to Airbus may make sense for Bombardier, which would gain access to its rival's cash, vast sales network and purchasing power on parts and maintenance. But such a move would likely require Bombardier to take a significant writedown on the more than $5-billion (U.S.) it has invested to develop the C Series, potentially violating debt covenants. It would be so much easier for Airbus and Boeing to just out-negotiate Bombardier on price, procurement and fleet complementarity, as they've done.

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A partnership with Airbus or Boeing might not survive scrutiny by competition authorities. An investment in the C Series program by a Chinese player such as Comac – Bombardier's Plan B (if not C or D) – would run up against Western governments' unwillingness to approve the transfer of critical technology to China. Mr. Beaudoin is running short of options.

Investors are not the only ones biting their fingernails. The Canadian, Quebec and British governments have more than $800-million (Canadian) in loans to the C Series program at stake. They'd lose far more than their investment if the plane fails to take off. Thousands of manufacturing and engineering jobs, and national pride, are on the line.

Mr. Beaudoin will need to pull another, perhaps final, rabbit out his hat.

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