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C Series project flying on one wing and a prayer

In the early part of this week's Paris Air Show, Bombardier, Canada's aerospace champion, gave the remarkably good impression that it was scared and confused. Maybe it wasn't an impression.

At an elegant media dinner on Saturday, Bombardier announced it had booked daily press conference slots at the air show. Then it made it clear that it would cancel the slots if it had nothing new to say. The next day, amid rumours that it indeed had nothing new to say, it duly cancelled the Monday press slot. Company executives did little to counter the industry chatter that, for the second air show running, it would be unable to report new orders for the struggling C Series jet.

On Monday morning - surprise! - it put out a press release confirming 10 sales of the C Series. But the buyer's name wasn't disclosed. Anonymity is any buyer's prerogative, but you could tell Bombardier was disappointed. It desperately wanted to announce that a marquee airline had endorsed the C Series, the $3.4-billion (U.S.) project that will make or break its aerospace division.

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Perhaps Bombardier's bemused behaviour should not come as a surprise. It perfectly mirrors the airline industry's own bemused attitude toward the C Series.

This is a new plane that exists only on paper, with all new technology, including revolutionary Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines. It is being developed by a company that has no presence in the target market for planes with 100 to 150 seats: Bombardier made its name in smaller regional jets and even-smaller corporate jets. And it is not an Airbus or a Boeing (known as "A and B" in the industry), the aerospace giants that utterly dominate the sales of medium- and large-size passenger planes. In other words, A&B are the safe choices and another B - Bombardier - need not apply.

Later in the air show, Bombardier was able to reveal that a big-name airline, Korean Air, is taking 10 of the C Series. While welcome news for the Canadians, it was not quite enough to dispel the notion that the C Series is a phantom flying through the imaginations of Bombardier's propeller heads in Montreal. If the identical plane were to carry the Airbus or Boeing label, it no doubt would fill the skies like starlings.

Skepticism about the C Series remains the product's biggest obstacle. While the plane nailed 20 firm orders in Paris by Tuesday, taking the tally to 123, with 119 options, it should have had many more by this stage in its evolution.

The C Series project was launched three years ago and its first flight is scheduled for the second half of next year. Compare this with the Airbus A320neo (which offers a larger version of the P&W engine used in the C Series). That plane, which will compete with the larger of the two C Series models, is on track to finish the Paris show with 600 orders. Airbus is utterly confident that its new baby will attract many more customers even though the first flight will not come until 2014, two years later than the C Series.

Overcoming skepticism about the new Bombardier will not be easy in spite of the successful first test flight early this week of its P&W engine, which promises significant fuel savings. Airline executives want to see the C Series fly; until then, it is a "paper" airplane. The endless public dithering by Qatar Airways, one of the plane's biggest alleged fans and potential customers, has not helped Bombardier's fortunes.

What can Bombardier do to build confidence in the C Series? The answer is, not to destroy what confidence exists by announcing delays to the program.

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Airlines naturally suspect the C Series will not be delivered on time and on budget because it is a new plane stuffed with largely unproven technology, not a revamped version of an existing product, such as the A320neo, which slaps new engines on an old but proven airframe.

Some of the skepticism about the C Series' development has been fuelled by Airbus and Boeing. Severe and costly delays of a few new planes, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A380 superjumbo, have ensured that Bombardier is not getting the benefit of the doubt. "Frankly, we are losing confidence in aircraft manufacturers promising delivery dates," Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker told reporters at the air show.

Bombardier insists that the C Series is on track and that the plane will enter service in 2013. If delays are announced, the goodwill that the plane is slowly building could vanish. Then all bets would be off. At least one analyst predicts that the C Series will struggle and that the entire project could be sold to the Chinese. But others are more optimistic, noting the plane's operating-cost savings over rival products. A few even predict an order surge next year.

Scared and confused at Bombardier? Company bosses and designers have no confusion about the plane's potential ability to emerge as a "game changer," to use a cliché beloved by the industry. But no matter what they say publicly, they are still scared that this potential will not translate into sales. The orders booked in Paris so far were not big enough to dispel those fears.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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