Bombardier CSeries jet - why you have a stake in its success: Don Pittis

Bombardier is bumping up against the smaller aircraft of Boeing and Airbus, and aerospace is a rough game, Don Pittis writes.

Bombardier is bumping up against the smaller aircraft of the big boys, and aerospace is a rough game

Test pilot Chuck Ellis waves to the crowd after Bombardier's CS100 maiden test flight at the Mirabel airport north of Montreal/ (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Over the past 10 years here at CBC business we have been doing stories about Bombardier's CSeries jet, through its conception and periodic setbacks. Finally the darn thing has taken its first official demonstration flight, and as far as we can tell, apart from a small dashboard light, everything went without a hitch.

As a taxpayer, you should be proud. You have a lot of money invested.

Bombardier is a fascinating case study of Canadian business. Like so many other Canadian success stories the company's history is a combination of private and public investment. 

The amount of your money that has been invested in Bombardier is almost impossible to measure. The $350 million in Canadian tax money officially announced for the CSeries is surely only a tiny portion of the total.

When Joseph-Armand Bombardier's first attempt at making a snowmobile began to lose money in the 1940s, the company turned to the government, making half-track vehicles as part of the war effort. Once the company was back on its feet Bombardier turned his attention to a personal version of the snowmobile, creating a whole new industry and sport with the revolutionary Ski-doo.

The leap into the aircraft business was also a public-private venture. Bombardier had become a thriving, well-run industrial manufacturer. And when the Tory government of Brian Mulroney wanted to unload its money-losing Canadair aircraft business at fire-sale prices, Bombardier was the perfect candidate.

Canadair had many money-making products. Its CL-215 water bomber was sold around the world, a beautifully engineered craft able to scoop water from the nearest lake to dump on forest fires. Bombardier still sells its next generation bomber, the CL-214 Superscooper.

But the development of Canadair's Challenger business jet became a money pit. That's why the government wanted to unload it, and all that precious aerospace expertise and research went to Bombardier for a song.

Government sweeteners

With various sweeteners from various levels of government over the following decades, Bombardier added to the Canadair acquisition and gradually assembled weak and dying Canadian aircraft companies into a robust international player.

Bombardier's C-Series commercial jet sits on the tarmac at the Mirabel airport north of Montreal prior to its first flight on Monday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The amount of your money that has been invested in Bombardier is almost impossible to measure. The $350 million in Canadian tax money officially announced for the CSeries is surely only a tiny portion of the total.

But that is the aerospace business. Just as Bombardier trades barbs over subsidies with Brazil's Embraer, America's Boeing does the same with Europe's Airbus. Supporting aircraft makers, and thus protecting jobs in the high-skills aerospace sector, is something governments have trouble resisting.

Compared to some of the things we could have spent our money on, the CSeries jet isn't bad. Bombardier engineers are using light-but-strong carbon fibres to cut the weight of the plane, reducing the amount of fuel needed to get you from Moncton to Montreal. Partly due to its fancy new fuel-efficient engines, Bombardier says the plane will be quieter as it takes off and lands.

The Sept. 16 test flight of Bombardier's new jet was only the first of many for the CS100 and the other four models planned for production in the CSeries family of commercial jets, which will range in size from 100 to 149 seats. (Christine Muschi/Reuters)

Those engineering advances don't mean the billions invested in the CSeries, including the cash you tossed into the pot, will create a guaranteed money-maker. Some critics say the future is in mega aircraft like Boeing's new Dreamliner jumbo jet. 

Meanwhile, having moved to the 110-to-160 passenger size, Bombardier is bumping up against the smaller aircraft of Boeing and Airbus. And aerospace is a rough game. As Canadair's Challenger showed, a single failure, if it is big enough, can bring down a company.

But now that we've gone this far, we and Bombardier, it's too late to back out. The CSeries is in the air, all those jobs have been created, and maybe, just maybe, it will fill the perfect sweet spot - the low cost way of shuttling jumbo jet passengers on their journey's final leg.

While it is no guarantee the aircraft will be an ultimate success, the fact that the company felt safe showing off this public flight is a good sign for Canadian industry. You have a stake in its success.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.