Bombardier Inc. is trying to fire up sales of its aging regional jets by revamping the cabin interiors, part of a wider effort to replenish the backlogs for its older aircraft amid tough competition.
The Montreal-based plane maker said at a media event Tuesday it will move forward with a previously announced concept for new interiors for its regional jets. Changes passengers will notice include more room in the overhead bins, mood lighting and washrooms that are 60-per-cent bigger than current versions with better access for passengers with reduced mobility and parents with children. The company did not say how much it would spend on the refresh.
Bombardier is also making changes to its Q400 turboprop aircraft. It has introduced a series of design tweaks to the planes over the past 18 months that have added three more windows to each side of the aircraft while enhancing the cabin interior and increasing capacity to as many as 90 seats. The company has earmarked $300-million for upgrades from 2008 to 2018.
Bombardier chief executive Alain Bellemare is two years into a turnaround effort at Bombardier that has seen the manufacturer raise cash, slash personnel and get a new flagship aircraft, the 100- to 150-seat C Series, to market. The company is now turning its attention to its older aircraft with more urgency again in a bid to jumpstart sales. It does not expect the C Series, which is now the subject of a heated trade battle between Canada and the United States, to break even on a pre-tax profit basis until 2020.
"Sometimes in life you have to be humble," said Colin Bole, Bombardier's sales chief for commercial aircraft. "And one of the humbling elements here is that for some time we were not fully on top of our game in terms of CRJ and Q400 market and messaging."
Mr. Bole said Bombardier is in the midst of a number of sales campaigns for the Q400 aircraft and that he expects many of those to result in firm orders. "I think you will see a dramatic change in the backlog for that program," he said. The company in June clinched a letter of intent from India's SpiceJet for as many as 50 turboprop planes as it begins to see the fruits of a bolstered marketing and sales push implemented after Mr. Bellemare's arrival.
European rival ATR has commanded the global market for turboprops for years with a cheaper aircraft. Bombardier officials said they believe that dominance is set to reverse as airlines push their planes harder and further in the years ahead, which will favour the superior capabilities of the Q400. A trend by more airlines to integrate their turboprops into their jet networks and offer gate service will also favour Bombardier, the officials said.
"Airlines want to have their passengers treated the same way whether they fly on a regional jet or whether they fly on a single aisle or wide body," said Patrick Baudis, Bombardier's vice-president of marketing. "This is something very big coming up."
The plane maker is working to reduce the manufacturing costs on its turboprops and confirmed Tuesday that it is pushing ahead with plans to outsource the assembly of the wings and cockpit to suppliers outside Canada that can build them less expensively. It has not yet chosen sites for that work. Employees at Bombardier's Downsview plant in Toronto, where the company performs final assembly of the aircraft, approved those plans last year.
As for the CRJs, the company is tackling the biggest criticism against the aircraft, one that has persisted for years: That its cabin was inferior to that of Embraer SA's E-Jet family. "We're on a mission right now to rebuild that backlog," Mr. Bole said.
Once the mainstay of its aircraft 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.
Bombardier believes there is a market for 12,550 commercial passenger aircraft of the size it produces over the next 20 years. Potential sales are worth $820-billion (U.S.) at 2017 list prices, the company said in an updated forecast. After a trend of buying larger aircraft in recent years, Bombardier says airlines are increasingly looking at taking smaller aircraft as they try to find the right size of equipment to maximize profits.
The C Series will be the centrepiece of Bombardier's commercial aircraft offering. The company said Tuesday that the aircraft is three-per-cent more fuel efficient than advertised in its sales brochures. Plans to build between 30 and 35 C Series planes this year have not changed.
With a file from Greg Keenan in Toronto