It’s an age-old technique in aviation: running down the Other Guy’s product. Airbus and Boeing have done it for as long as we can remember, and now Bombardier is the target of both companies because the Canadian firm has the temerity to offer a product the threatens the duopoly.

The corporate sniping gets tiresome.

Airbus and Boeing have been going at it for so long and at times it’s been so bitter that journalists might well miss the controversies should it stop. When Airbus launched in the 1970s, Boeing and the then-independent McDonnell Douglas dismissed Airbus as a European jobs program with little prospect of making a competitive airplane. The skepticism was not misplaced for the times. European commercial aviation struggled to make commercially viable airplanes.

The pioneering de Havilland Comet, very advanced for its day, ran afoul of unrecognized physics and suffered premature metal fatigue that led to catastrophic explosive decompression. Britain’s multitude of airplane manufacturers produced a variety of aircraft, some of which looked odd indeed, that were niche products. Ditto with France.
The Vickers Viscount was a very successful airplane, ending a production run after 444 deliveries, a number that was about the same as the Douglas DC-7. France’s Sud Caravelle was reasonably successful with a run of more than 200 aircraft, a reasonable number for the time.

But there were duds like the Vickers Vanguard, the Bristol Britannia and the de Havilland Trident. (Lest we be accused of bias, the Convair 880/990 was the largest loss-making program in US corporate history at the time and Lockheed’s Electra had a fatal flaw that caused the wing to separate from two airplanes in flight.)

Airbus’ first airplane, the A300B2, actually was an answer to specification from American Airlines’ Frank Kolk, who wanted a twin-engine wide-body aircraft. His specifications morphed into the DC-10 and L-1011 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which the engines available then were not powerful enough to adequately do the job. The A300B2 and B4 were notoriously under-powered, and it wasn’t until the A300-600 entered service that engine power was up to the job of a wide-body twin. Boeing capitalized on it with the 767.

The A300 and its follow-on, the A310, were “OK” airplanes that seemed to fall short of the 767 and fed on Boeing’s disdain of Airbus that continues to this day. Each new airplane Airbus has produced has been dismissed by Boeing as inadequate and doomed to failure. Boeing officials famously said the A320 would fail and today asserts that the A320neo still doesn’t match up to the 737-800. (Boeing’s silence on the A319/A321 and the NEO successors vis-à-vis the 737-700 and 737-900 is deafening; officials privately concede Airbus has the advantage on these two models.)

Boeing and Airbus have a huge public spat over the viability of the Very Large Aircraft (VLA) and the merits of their respective offerings, the 747-8 and A380. Each company claims their airplane is better—no surprise here—but Airbus openly accuses Boeing of lying about the data used to support the claim the 747-8 is more economical.

Airbus claims the A330-300 is more economical than the 777-200 it competes with and Boeing responds with figures Airbus says are fudged.

Sometimes it’s clear who is correct. Boeing was spot-on about the A340; it was the wrong plane at the wrong time and it could not compete with the 777. Boeing was spot-on about the initial planes for the A350, which was nothing more than a warmed-over, re-engined A330. Boeing continues to say the A350-1000, which has been re-jigged now again, still doesn’t measure up. Despite a fanciful roll-out of the revision at the EADS Media Day June 18, Airbus has an uphill battle to convince people it has a better airplane than the 777-300ER, which is clearly a superb airplane. Even launch customer Qatar Airways isn’t convinced and its mercurial CEO, Akbar Al-Baker threatened to cancel because (1) he wasn’t briefed in advance about the changes (Airbus says his staff was) and (2) the changes mean a two year delay.

But then Al-Baker threatened to cancel his order for Boeing 787s because of delays and Boeing’s failure to communicate to his liking.

Airbus was famously wrong in its initial assessment of the 787, blithely dismissing the aircraft. When sales took off after a poor first year, Airbus responded with the A350 V 1.0, the tepid makeover of the A330. In an embarrassing series of re-dos, it took five more tries before it seemed to get it right. Except now the tweaks on the -1000 gives Boeing and critics to have another round of “I told you so.”

Then there is Bombardier.

Its CSeries is a leap from the traditional regional jet market, going to the lower and middle ends of the 100-149 market segment—and directly competitive to the A319 and the 737-700. Sales have been slow, to be sure, but when BBD nabbed Republic Airways Holdings with an order for 40+40 CS300s intended to replace the A319s as they came off lease at subsidiary Frontier Airlines, Airbus blanched—and launched the New Engine Option, (NEO). Airbus claimed that the NEO “kills the business case of the CSeries.”

We commented on this June 23. Airbus is engaged in an all-out frontal assault on CSeries, going so far at the Paris Air Show to suggest BBD should cancel the program. Boeing isn’t quite so bold, but it ramped up its attack on CSeries in recent months.

Initially Boeing merely said it needed to ramp up production of the 737 to avoid driving sales to CSeries. The message evolved to attacking the skill of BBD to carry off a program, which Boeing officials began characterizing as high risk and that BBD was, essentially, in for surprises. Boeing avoids noting that BBD is in the supply chain on the 787 and witnessed what an ill-conceived production plan can do. BBD has taken steps in the CSeries program to avoid what it saw first-hand on the 787.
Boeing has ratcheted up the criticism even further. Now officials demean BBD as nothing more than a “business jet” builder.

Certainly BBD builds business jets and yes, the CRJ began as a derivative of one. But BBD has also learned through building business jets (Global Express was particularly painful) and continually evolving the CRJ. (And, in deference to a famous quip from Airbus’ John Leahy, who suggested BBD go back to building snowmobiles, BBD proudly notes its founder invented snowmobiles even though the business unit was sold long ago.)

What’s the point of this soliloquy? It is this:

  • History has proved that with few exceptions, the trashing originates with fear of the Other Guy’s product.
  • Bombardier put the fear of God into Airbus when it won the Republic order, and the NEO was the result. The Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbo Fan, powering the CSeries, was dismissed by many, including CFM International, as a stupid idea whose time will never come. But the early, runaway success forced CFM to re-jig its engine to meet the performance of the GTF.

That “business jet” builder with the “dead business case” has changed the industry. BBD has been a market-maker several times before. It’s making a market today.

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