Flying too Close to the Sun – the C-Series passenger Jet

Volume 24 Letter 2

A technical advantage doesn’t always translate into a competitive market advantage.  To fully realize a competitive market advantage, you must ensure the product meets the standard of a ‘minimal viable product’.  This means there are certain criteria customers expect you to meet to be considered as an alternative purchase.  As Bombardier discovered with its ill-fated C-Series passenger jet, technical superiority alone isn’t enough.

Bombardier was the established world leader in the manufacturing of turbo-prop aircraft and small regional jets.   The turbo prop Q series planes and the Global Express business jets are clear category leaders.  Bombardier made the move up the value chain and out of their comfort zone when they designed the first completely new narrow-body airplane (120-160 seat category) in over 40 years. Technically awesome, ultimately it outstretched Bombardier’s resources leaving them little choice but to sell off the C-Series aircraft to Airbus where it shines today as the Airbus 220.

The C-Series aircraft is a technical winner, offering 10% to 15% more flight efficiency over competitors.  Utilizing lighter carbon fiber composite materials and employing a new fuel sipping engine, the plane serves up a superior ride for a lot less money per mile.   It’s so efficient it costs about the same to fly as a 70 – 100 seat prop or small jet aircraft yet offers an additional 20 – 50 revenue generating seats.  The C-Series addressed an underserved sweet spot in the single aisle aircraft market.  So why couldn’t Bombardier sell more airplanes and make buckets of money for themselves?

To answer that question a little background is needed.  Airline pilot unions have established a hard line between aircraft less than 100 seats and greater than 100 seats.   Pilots on planes with less than 100 passengers are paid a lot less than pilots on larger aircraft.  This is why all the independent regional airlines fly the smaller under 100 seat capacity aircraft where Bombardier has typically played.  By designing a 120 -150 seat aircraft Bombardier was directly challenging Airbus and Boeing.  This meant many things but most importantly it would require Bombardier to develop relationships with a whole new set of “big player” customers.  Bombardier would no longer be the big company selling to small regional airlines…they would now be the small aircraft manufacturer selling to the big airlines!

There were some unique features that made the C-Series so efficient.  Bombardier significantly reduced the airframe’s weight by employing lighter carbon fiber materials translating into to a 10% -15% savings per passenger mile. Also, the materials used further reduce long-term operating costs as they require less maintenance.  Finally, the plane is kitted with Pratt and Whitney geared turbofan (GTF) engines, known to be fuel misers further contributing to the aircraft’s attractiveness.

Customers fell in love with the efficiency of the C-Series airplane.  However, the superior savings alone weren’t enough to overcome the reluctance of airlines to buy from a small upstart supplier with an unproven track record to deliver the needed support for a high use commercial aircraft.  Bombardier simply didn’t have the reach of Airbus or Boeing.  This caused purchasers to pause and by then Bombardier couldn’t afford a pause, they were desperate for cash and negotiators knew it.

Technical superiority is only half the battle; the other, often overlooked half, is the marketing strategy.  Bombardier nailed the efficiency, so with all that’s going for the C-Series jet what went wrong?   Let’s take a moment to highlight the marketing challenges that forced Bombardier to abandon the project.

The C-Series is a stand-alone plane that was built to compete against Airbus and Boeing single aisle jets.  This meant:

  • Longer pilot certification: Certifying a A319 pilot on a A320 takes only a few days as the Airbus controls are so similar.  Certifying a pilot on the C-Series jet takes approx. 2 months.
  • Higher manufacturing cost: Aircraft are typically designed to snap together like Lego blocks, complete with wiring connections etc.  In their rush to get a viable plane to market, Bombardier didn’t do the Lego block design step, meaning the plane is costlier to build, further eroding their narrow profit margins.
  • High parts costs: Suppliers fight hard for Airbus and Boeing contracts knowing their planes will need their parts long into the future.  Not so for Bombardier.  With no track record, suppliers were concerned about Bombardier’s long term viability leaving Bombardier little leverage when it came to negotiating contracts.
  • Reluctant customers: Aircraft typically sell to lessors who move aircraft in and out of fleets.   The initial lease to a United or a Lufthansa didn’t worry them.  It was the second lease that caused lessors concern.  This is when the aircraft are 5 or 7 years old, retired from a Swiss Air etc. and leased to a second-tier airlines who are typically brand sensitive.  This caused lessors to re-think a C-Series purchase and ultimately caused the C-Series to flounder.

The C- Series was taken over by Airbus in 2018 and since then Airbus has invested heavily to ensure worldwide maintenance of the A220 is top notch.   Today the A220 is a market winner and heralded as “the greenest commercial aircraft in the world, …helping to reduce CO2 and NOx emissions by 20 per cent and 50 per cent respectively.” 1

Interestingly, as big a winner as the A220 is for Airbus, it has introduced a huge headache. Manufacturing costs for the A220 remain high and it’s still a break-even proposition. Also, the C-Series jet was designed to compete with Airbus – not compliment it – and the sales of the A220 are cannibalizing Airbus’s profit making A319.  Even as A220 sales soar, profits are failing to materialize.

What can we learn from Bombardier:

  1. A technically superior product doesn’t necessarily win in the market.  The capabilities of the company to develop the market and deliver the “whole product” (aftermarket service, pilot training etc.) must also be considered.
  2. A weak position at the negotiating table leaves you with high costs that can kill your profit margins.
  3. Taking new products to new markets is a dangerous strategy!   For Bombardier not only was the plane new – so were the customers!

When designing and bringing new products to market don’t focus solely on the technical side of the equation.

Remember to address the marketing equation, ensuring you reach the definition of a minimal viable product…then crush it!



  1.  C-Series experience revival after acquisition by Airbus AIRCRAFT & AIRLINES Mario Pierobon, 18 December 2019


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