Skip to main content

“The new leadership change in the U.S., we see that [as] relatively positive,” Alain Bellemare, CEO of Bombardier Inc. told analysts last month.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Bombardier's stock price has surged since the U.S. election as investors expect Donald Trump's implicit benediction of conspicuous consumption to send private-jet sales soaring again. After the heads of the Big Three U.S. auto makers drew scorn for flying to Washington on private jets to ask for a government bailout in 2008, much of the U.S. corporate elite felt shamed into flying commercial. Annual business jet sales fell by more than a third after 2008.

The Trump era should embolden CEOs to show off again, which could be good news for Bombardier's private-jet business. But could the Canadian maker of trains and planes also face the downside of Trumponomics as the new administration pursues an America First trade agenda?

Bombardier seems to have so far escaped Mr. Trump's radar, even as he singles out other domestic and foreign companies for public shaming. His Twitter tirades against Carrier, Ford, General Motors, BMW and others – warning them to manufacture their products in the United States or face a "big border tax" – has left many CEOs wondering if their company is next on the Trump hit list.

Publicly at least, Bombardier CEO Alain Bellemare is not one of them. At least twice since Mr. Trump's election, Mr. Bellemare has dismissed analyst concerns that it could find itself in Mr. Trump's crosshairs as a major equipment exporter to the United States from both Mexico and Canada. All its commercial aircraft are assembled in Canada, from parts sourced globally.

"The new leadership change in the U.S., we see that [as] relatively positive," Mr. Bellemare told analysts last month. "I mean, it's pro-growth, pro-business. We kind of like that …. We think it could be very good for our business, especially for our business aircraft segment."

Still, there is no small risk that, whatever good the new administration's macroeconomic policies do for Bombardier's business, its protectionist micromanagement of U.S. industrial and trade policy could leave the company vulnerable to similar jawboning by Mr. Trump, and possibly retaliation.

Even the Obama administration warned last year that it would "monitor carefully any government financing and support of the C Series," Bombardier's make-or-break 100- to 150-seat new aircraft. The Trump administration will look even more critically at past and future cash injections into Bombardier by the federal and Quebec governments. Quebec has already provided $2.5-billion (U.S.); Ottawa is still weighing whether to pony up $1-billion. Both governments also contributed about $550-million in launch aid toward the C Series development in 2008.

Brazil, whose domestic aerospace giant Embraer is a direct Bombardier competitor, signalled last month that it intends to take Canada before the World Trade Organization to protest the $1-billion that the Quebec government pumped into the C Series last year, taking a 49-per-cent stake in the aircraft program. Brazil also singled out the $1.5-billion stake that Quebec's public pension fund manager, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, took in Bombardier's rail division. The cash from both transactions helped shore up Bombardier's shaky finances, reassuring potential customers that the company would be around long enough to make deliveries.

"This is causing a huge disruption in the market," Embraer CEO Paulo Cesar de Souza e Silva said in an interview published this week in Aviation Week & Space Technology, a U.S. industry publication. "We are no longer competing with Bombardier, but with the [Quebec] government that is now manufacturing aircraft. We think this is very unfair."

Bombardier's breakthrough contract to sell 75 C Series jets to U.S.-based Delta Airlines is reported by analysts to have come at a substantial cost – money-losing pricing aimed at undercutting U.S.-based Boeing. Bombardier had best hope Mr. Trump not get wind of it. He might call it dumping. Bombardier has arguments to counter any criticism from the incoming U.S. administration. The company maintains extensive U.S. operations, employing 7,000 workers at its four manufacturing plants and multiple maintenance facilities and service centres. The company spent $3-billion on U.S. suppliers in 2015, though that is only half of the nearly $6-billion in sales it generated in the U.S. market.

U.S. aerospace consultant Richard Aboulafia also points out that the WTO's Agreement on Trade in Civil Aircraft "clearly rules out protectionism in this industry. I would hope this useful and well-established treaty stands up to whatever the world throws at it – including Trump." Ottawa, which is considering buying new fighter jets from Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, could hold up those contracts as an argument to deter any action against Bombardier by the Trump administration, Mr. Aboulafia adds.

Still, Bombardier should not expect a smooth flight in Mr. Trump's airspace. It may be time to turn on the Fasten Seatbelts sign.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story