The history of the Airbus A220, the controversial plane Boeing tried to keep out of the US

  • The Bombardier CSeries was meant to be a game-changing aircraft. Produced by the Canadian aircraft manufacturer, it was its first foray in the 100-to-150-seat market.
  • Though initially successful with sales to major airlines, the program was turned upside following a trade dispute with Boeing.
  • The aircraft program was taken over by Airbus as a result, with the aircraft renamed the Airbus A220.
  •  Bombardier has pulled out of the venture entirely, leaving it to Airbus.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

David Neeleman unveiled the name and image of his new airline, Breeze Airways, earlier this year and the first rendering of the aircraft that will be powering the operation: the Airbus A220. 

It's the first time that Neeleman — a long-time Airbus fan — will use the aircraft in any of his airlines, largely because it's still relatively new to the world's skies. In just under a year, the Airbus A220 went from being largely unknown in North America to operating passenger services for some of its largest airlines.

Delta Air Lines first started operating the aircraft in the US in February 2019, with Air Canada following suit in the aircraft's home country in January 2020. Already with a foothold in Europe with Air Baltic and Swiss International Air Lines, the aircraft is now commonplace in the skies of North America with Delta and JetBlue preparing to welcome the latest and largest variant: the A220-300.

Though its name suggests otherwise, the A220 wasn't another success story of Airbus, but of Bombardier, a smaller manufacturer located just outside Montreal, Canada that aimed to take on the duopoly dominating the market.

Bombardier had already dominated in the regional aircraft market, with its Canadair Regional Jet series aircraft flying for airlines all over the world, as well as strong representation in the private jet market with its Learjet, Challenger, and Global aircraft. But the Canadian manufacturer decided to set its sights on a larger type of aircraft, one that can seat up to 150 passengers.

It would be larger than anything Bombardier had produced before and would make it the target of Airbus and Boeing, as it would later find out, but had the potential to be a game-changer and unlike anything else currently in the works.

This is the story of the aircraft formerly known as the Bombardier CSeries.  

The CSeries program was officially launched by Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier in 2008 at the Farnborough International Airshow in England.

Source: Bombardier

The goal was to provide airlines with a next-generation aircraft in the 100-to-149 seat category, which had been largely untouched by the next-generation revolution of the time.

Source: Bombardier

At the time, other aircraft serving the segment that Bombardier was hoping to disrupt included the Boeing 717…

Boeing 737 NG…

Embraer E190…

and Airbus A320 family.

While some Boeing 737 NG and Airbus A320 family aircraft were eventually slated to receive next-generation enhancements by their respective manufacturers, Bombardier saw a gap in the market and decided to fill it with a new plane.

The manufacturer, at the time, was known for its successes in the aviation industry with a product line up that including the Bombardier CRJ series of aircraft…

Long-range Global Express aircraft…

Short-to-medium range Learjet aircraft…

And Challenger aircraft.

The 100-to-150-seat segment, however, would be a new challenge.

The production would take place in two countries across two continents with the design and manufacture of the aircraft's wings taking place in the UK.

Source: Bombardier

While rear fuselage and cockpit production would occur in Saint-Laurent, Canada, and final assembly at Bombardier's main production facility in Mirabel, Canada.

Source: Bombardier

The governments of both countries would also join Bombardier as partners in the program by investing in research and development.

Source: Bombardier

At Farnborough, Bombardier promised that the aircraft would be quiet, efficient, passenger-friendly, and be a leader in the 100-to-150-seat aircraft market.

Source: Bombardier

Powering the aircraft would be Pratt & Whitney with a geared turbofan engine, known as the GTF or PW1500G, promising efficiency and lower noise volume.

Source: Bombardier

It would also feature a state of the art cockpit…

And be one of the rare five-abreast aircraft to be produced in the 2000s as most manufacturers shifted towards four or six-abreast narrowbody aircraft.

Some airlines would even opt for a unique feature on the aircraft, a lavatory with a window.

Two variants would be produced, the smaller -100 and larger -300.

Both would have ranges upwards of 3,000 nautical miles, theoretically enabling them to fly nonstop between the US and Europe.

Unlike Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer's future next-generation narrowbody projects, the CSeries would be an entirely new design instead of building off of prior success.

The first flight for the aircraft took place in 2013 in Mirabel.

Source: Bombardier

Two years later in 2015, Canada's aviation regulator Transport Canada issued the aircraft a type certification.

Source: Bombardier

Swiss International Air Lines, a member of the Lufthansa Group that placed one of the first orders for the aircraft, would be the launch operator.

Source: Bombardier

Following speculation from CEO Richard Anderson, Delta Air Lines placed an order for 125 of the smaller -100 variant of the aircraft, giving the aircraft its first American order and its largest customer.

Source: Bombardier

For Bombardier, having an American airline as a customer would go a long way in ensuring the aircraft's success.

The order by Delta, however, wasn't viewed well by Boeing, who had wanted the airline to buy more 737s.

The CSeries could offer greater efficiency to Delta, which already operated Boeing's smallest aircraft, the 737-700 and Boeing's 717 aircraft.

The order also came at a time when Delta and Boeing weren't the best as friends as Delta leaned towards Airbus products at the time, rebuking Boeing with orders for the A321, A350-900 XWB, and A330-900neo.

Less than a year after certification, Swiss International Air Lines took delivery of the aircraft and flights began in June 2016 between Zurich, Switzerland and Dublin, Ireland.

Sources: Bombardier and CNN

Back in North America, however, Boeing was gearing up for a fight with Bombardier that would change the program forever.

The manufacturer already knew Bombardier was a threat, with an industry analyst telling Business Insider that Boeing gave United Airlines a 70% discount on a Boeing 737 order to secure it over Bombardier's CSeries.

Source: Business Insider

With Delta getting ready to take delivery of its first CSeries, Boeing fired its first public shot at Bombardier, filling a trade dispute with the US Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission in 2017.

Source: Business Insider

Boeing claimed, among other things, that Bombardier was able to sell the CSeries in the US at the price it did due to the government of Quebec's investment in the program.

Source: Business Insider

The US government initially agreed and slapped a near-300% tariff on the aircraft, which would have significantly raised Delta's purchase price and devastated Bombardier's plan to get a major American purchaser.

Source: Business Insider

While a final decision on the tariff was awaited, Airbus made its move on Bombardier with a plan to save the aircraft.

Airbus took a majority stake in the program and vowed to move production of the aircraft to its production plant in Mobile, Alabama to avoid any potential tariffs.

Source: Business Insider

The deal saw Airbus purchase a 50.01% majority stake in the program with no upfront cash, relegating Bombardier and the Quebec government to approximate stakes of 34% and 16%, respectively.

Source: Airbus

The purchase price was a single Canadian dollar, a token symbol.

Source: Reuters

Airbus would assist Bombardier with production, marketing, and sale, as part of the deal, and Bombardier would be responsible for cash shortfalls in the program of up to $350 million from 2019 to 2021.

Source: Airbus

Production would largely be kept in Canada with a secondary production facility to be built in Mobile alongside Airbus' A320 family production site.

Source: Airbus

That facility opened in May.

Though it was a strategic move that allowed Bombardier to keep its American customer and Airbus to gain a new aircraft for its product line, it would also be the end of the CSeries as the world knew it.

With Airbus now onboard, the CSeries name would cease to exist and the aircraft would become the Airbus A220.

Ultimately, the US government ruled in favor of Bombardier, which saw the tariffs removed and would have allowed the deal with Delta to go through unscathed.

Source: Business Insider

But Airbus had already gotten its piece of the aircraft, with the move having the benefit of Airbus getting an entirely new aircraft in its lineup without taking on any of the initial development, marketing, and production costs.

The CSeries, at the time, was already performing well in Europe with Swiss and Air Baltic, and an order from Delta had given it credibility in the US.

Following Airbus' takeover, more airlines jumped aboard the CSeries/A220 train with JetBlue Airways — already a fan of Airbus aircraft — opting for the aircraft to renew its regional fleet and replace its aging Embraer E190s.

Read More: JetBlue just revealed its newest jet, the controversial Airbus A220 that the airline will be the second in the US to operate

JetBlue opted for the larger A220-300 variant and will become the second US airline to fly it behind Delta.

Delivery of the aircraft will occur in December, with passenger flights starting in 2021.

The aircraft will also become the flagship for a new airline in the US, David Neeleman's Breeze Airways, with an order for 60 A220-300 planes.

Source: Business Insider

Following a successful launch by Delta in February 2019, Air Canada became the second North American operator of what was now the A220.

Read More: Air Canada just added the Airbus A220 to its fleet — see inside the controversial aircraft that Boeing tried to keep out of the US

Unfortunately for Canada's flag carrier, its newest plane wouldn't bear the name of another Canadian company headquartered just 12 miles away in Montreal, but of a European manufacturer headquartered across the Atlantic.

Bombardier's legacy wouldn't completely vanish from the A220, however, as a reminder of the aircraft's past is featured on every aircraft at the boarding door.

Current operators of the A220 can now be found on four continents.

While it's proving to be a hit with airlines, whether or not the CSeries program remains a success for Bombardier remains to be seen.

In a January 2019 earnings report, Bombardier said it would evaluate whether or not to stay in the venture with Airbus as doing so would require additional investment and delays the date at which Bombardier would break-even.

Source: Bombardier

The additional investment comes from Airbus' desire to lower supplier costs by increasing scale through greater production.

Source: Bombardier

The A220 isn't the only aircraft Bombardier is looking to offload from its books as the manufacturer has already sold off its Q-series and CRJ programs…

And reports say Bombardier is in talks with Textron to sell its private jet division including the popular and ever-expanding Global Express product line.

Source: Wall Street Journal

The sale of the CSeries wasn't intended to be a nail in Bombardier's coffin but with the manufacturer's retreat from aviation, Airbus is now going it alone with the new plane. Bombardier sold its share in the program in February.

Get the latest Boeing stock price here.

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