Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bombardier Talks CRJ Evolution as E2 Threat Looms

By Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Published September 16, 2014 / Photos by author

CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways News 2014The clock on the flight deck reads just past 2 a.m. as a Bombardier CRJ-900 lines up on the runway at Mirabel International Airport, outside of Montreal. The engines throttle up and the plane lurches forward, taking to the skies in only a few thousand feet of asphalt despite being fueled to the brim.

Decked out in a fresh coat of paint bearing the colors of American Eagle, one might assume the jet is headed for one of the carrier’s hubs—perhaps Chicago O’Hare or Dallas/Ft Worth. But the nine people onboard, author included, have a far more distant destination in mind for this trip: Farnborough, UK, by way of Keflavik International Airport in Iceland.

This is not a regularly scheduled flight: it’s a private charter, operated by Canada-based Bombardier Aerospace, the plane’s maker. While it will soon be hauling passengers for the Eagle, it is currently headed to the UK to participate in the Farnborough International Airshow. Once on-site, its purpose is to look pretty on a sun-soaked ramp in the hopes of catching the eye of a potential customer, but we’ll come back to that later.

Transatlantic crossings are normally made by the likes of giant passenger jets carrying hundreds of people for hours on end. Bombardier’s 90-seat CRJ-900, by contrast, is typically found plying the skies between regional cities no more than a few hours’ time apart—say, between Los Angeles and Seattle or Houston and Omaha.

CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways NewsWhich makes this nonstop service from Montreal to Reykjavik especially peculiar. Technically, the flight shouldn’t be possible. While the CRJ-900 comes in multiple variants, the longest-range version of this jet, by the company’s own admission, is capable of flying just over 2,100 miles. The distance between Montreal and Reykjavik? 2,329 miles. After a little math, it looks like we’re going to come up short.

Yet the airplane leaves Canada’s Atlantic coast behind, cruising out over the ocean as if there weren’t any problem at all. If anyone would know the airplane’s capabilities and limitations, it would be today’s captain, Don McNicoll, a veteran pilot for Bombardier. But he’s performed dozens of these transatlantic flights, and today, he notes, will be no different. The trick, he says, is that with so few passengers and bags onboard, the engines are able to sip less fuel and thus make up the several-hundred-mile gap (though without much room to spare).

CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways NewsThe CRJ-900 normally carries a reputation for being cramped, with its standard two-by-two configuration. But this time, the plane feels remarkably spacious for such a long flight, probably because there are nearly 10 seats for every passenger on board. Indeed, the jets haven’t been terribly popular since the line began in 1991 with the 100-series. They quickly become known for their lack of headroom and legroom, and the passenger-irking requirement that nearly anything other than a backpack or purse had to be checked into the cargo hold.

That’s why Bombardier says it has worked to improve the passenger experience of the oft-unloved airplanes. This particular aircraft enjoys a 76-seat layout, with a mix of 12 first-class, 28 standard economy-class, and 36 premium economy seats. Legroom has received a boost in each cabin over the previous iteration of the jet. Seat pitch has increased to 31 inches in coach, 35 inches in premium economy, and 39 inches in business class.

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways NewsThe company also says it has improved its notoriously small overhead bag space. Gone are the super-tiny bins that can barely hold a backpack. They’ve been replaced instead by larger bins capable of handling average-sized roll-on bags. The new business class and premium economy seats are now large enough that smaller roller bags can be squeezed under the seat, increasing capacity even further.

LED lighting, the current darling of the industry, has also been installed and will come standard on all new jets. Wi-Fi connectivity will be a new option as well, making it the only manufacturer to install the feature in-factory.

CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways NewsMany of these passenger-friendly changes have been aimed at making the interior experience more palatable versus its primary competitor, Embraer’s E-Jet. The four-strong series of Brazilian-made regional planes have proven a worthy adversary. Their wider cabin and higher ceilings versus the CRJ have translated into larger seats and bigger overhead bins, helping to give it a passenger experience edge since its introduction in 2004.

That edge has helped put money in the bank for Embraer. Its jets have quickly gained ground on the CRJ despite a cost-operating disadvantage (one that Embraer doesn’t necessarily agree with but Airways News models have repeatedly confirmed). Still, roughly 1,050 E170/75 and E190/95 models have gone into service in only 10 years, compared to Bombardier’s 1,694 CRJs over a 23-year span.

The closing gap is evidenced more acutely by the CRJ-900 we’re currently flying on. American ordered the jet for its regional affiliates back in December of 2013. While the carrier placed a firm order for 30 Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft (of which our airplane is one), it placed a larger order for 60 Embraer E175s at the same time. That two-to-one dynamic expands out into US domestic carriers as well: E175s won 177 firm orders in the past two years from US airlines. The CRJ900 had only 70.

Embraer is poised to extend its lead even further with the introduction of its next-generation E2 line late this decade. The planes are intended to replace the current series of E-Jets, primarily by attaching Pratt & Whitney’s new geared turbofan engine—the same powerplant that Bombardier’s new CSeries utilizes. The new engines, along with other changes, are designed to reduce fuel burn by as much as 25 percent and lower maintenance costs by 15 percent.

That savings could prove problematic for Bombardier. Claudio Camelier, Embraer’s vice president of market intelligence, says the E2 jets will position the company to “boost even more the efficiency of the airplanes to levels well above the CRJ.” Unfortunately for Bombardier, Mr. Camelier’s confidence is likely well-placed: projections show the E2 to have a likely operating cost advantage of 5–10 percent over the CRJ.

Bombardier, however, appears undaunted. “We have the winning solution,” says Sylvain Leclerc, vice president and general manager of the CRJ program, during an interview aboard the airplane. “And when you have the winning solution, you don’t try to change the solution. You try to improve it.”

The interior, passenger-facing changes already detailed are no doubt a big part of that improvement. But while the “passenger experience is great,” says Mr. Leclerc, “we’re [also] focusing a lot on economic value of aircraft.”

CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways NewsMr. Leclerc says the current-generation CRJ900 is 5.5 percent more fuel efficient than the previous configuration, a product of multiple evolutionary alterations. During a tour of the aircraft at the Farnborough InternationalAirshow (yes, we landed safely), he points out an example on the trailing edge of the engine. The chevrons, currently a popular feature in the industry because of their noise-reduction capability, have been replaced by a more simple, and fuel saving, conic nozzle.

Bombardier expects the program to reach 6.5 percent improvement by the end of the next budget period, says Leclerc.

But the company doesn’t plan to stop there, and given the E2 threat, it can’t afford to. “We’re looking at double-digits within five, six years,” said Mike Arcamone, president of Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, in a separate interview with Airways News. “We’re at 5.5, so we’ve done half.”

Mr. Arcamone doesn’t say exactly where in the double-digits the company plans to wind up, and neither does Mr. Leclerc, though a little math by Airways News suggests somewhere in the 10–12 percent range. That’s still an increase of 4.5–7.5 percent over today, no doubt a significant task. Mr. Arcamone acknowledges as much. “There are no physical changes on the CRJ that will give it a double-digit advantage,” he says. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of ideas.

Some of those ideas are likely to include lessons learned from the -900’s larger sibling, the -1000. For example, carbon brakes from the -1000, now in use for three years, have proven effective. Adding them to the CRJ900 would reduce the jet’s weight by 400 pounds.

Best practices and new technologies from the company’s marquee CSeries program are also being transferred to the CRJ. “The CSeries is a very, very clean aircraft,” says Leclerc, “and we’re leveraging a lot of best practice on CSeries to the CRJ.” He points to a gap between the rudder and the tail as an opportunity for aerodynamic cleanup. He also highlights the tail bumper just below, which seems practically to beg for an aerodynamic cap. “It is important to improve these gaps,” says Leclerc.

He says the company is also looking at the trailing edge of the wing, both as an opportunity for cleanup and for its size. Leclerc says there may be an opportunity to leverage the current CRJ900 wing against the larger version on the -1000 for a more efficient design.

CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways NewsNotably absent from the plans, however, are new engines. The step is unusual, as the rest of the manufacturing industry has been swept up in a wave of slapping on new, better-performing, fuel-efficient engines to essentially proven platforms. It’s even more unusual given the looming E2 threat, which will do exactly that and, as mentioned, likely erase the operating cost gap that the CRJ presently enjoys. Nevertheless, Leclerc says that for now, the company is “not looking at changing the engine.”

As to why, Leclerc cites a few reasons. First, he says it is because they’ve already found the right engine for the right airframe. That engine would be the General Electric CF34-8, which he describes as “point-designed” for the jet. “We strongly believe that an engine should be designed with the airframe,” he says. “That’s what we did with the CRJ.”

Secondly, Leclerc doesn’t believe it will bring a significant benefit to the program. “As soon as you start changing your engine, you’re going into a compromised phase,” he says. New engines usually mean increasing the weight of the airplane. More weight equals higher fuel burn, which in turn means that weight needs to be reduced elsewhere to compensate. “They’re going to add a lot of weight, [so] they’re going to have to find a lot of fuel savings somewhere else,” Leclerc says of the E2.

But without a new set of engines, it’s hard to imagine how the CRJ program will be able to match the E2. Leclerc dismisses estimates of the E2 being up to 20 percent more cost-effective (admittedly on the very, very high end). He says the figures compare only to today’s CRJ900, and not the version its looming rival will face when it enters service around 2020. But our numbers suggest it still doesn’t appear to work out. If current EJets are at a 5 percent disadvantage against today’s CRJ, and if its next-generation brethren are expected to be 16 percent better according to Embraer, that gives the E2 an 11 percent advantage over today’s CRJ. Factor in what we expect to be an average 1 percent year-over-year operating cost improvement for the CRJ through 2020, and the E2’s lead is still a respectable 6 percent.

If there is any concern, or if perhaps the CRJ is being left out to dry as Bombardier puts ever more eggs into the CSeries basket, the company isn’t showing it. “I don’t see [Embraer] as much of a threat,” says Leclerc during a follow-up interview by phone. “With our proven technology, I don’t know how they’re going to be better than us.”

But he revises slightly in the next breath: “I don’t think they’re going to be better than us.”

CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways NewsMeanwhile, back aboard our American Eagle jet, the Icelandic coast comes into view after nearly five hours aloft. Captain McNicoll guides the plane to the ground at Keflavik, completing a feat that should not have been possible for the little airplane. We continue on to Farnborough uneventfully, returning across the pond five days later. As the nine passengers complete a final landing back in Montreal, it is clear that the CRJ is more than capable. But the big question remains unanswered: will it be able to compete?


CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways News
CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways News
CRJ feature Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Airways News

PHOTOS: View the rest of the photos here in our gallery!

Contact the author at, or follow him on Twitter @photoJDL.

Disclosure: Bombardier flew the author and the Airways News senior business writer from Montreal to Farnborough and back aboard the CRJ900 at no charge. The company also provided occasional ground transportation in Montreal and London, as well as a connecting flight for the author from Toronto to Montreal on WestJet. Our writing remains independent.

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