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Is Bigger Always Better? How Smaller Aircraft Manufacturers Are Stepping Up Their Game

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Is Bigger Always Better? How Smaller Aircraft Manufacturers Are Stepping Up Their Game

Is Bigger Always Better? How Smaller Aircraft Manufacturers Are Stepping Up Their Game
May 04
12:32 2017

When you think of commercial aircraft manufacturers, two instinctively come to mind: Boeing and Airbus. The two have been competing with one another in a duopoly for decades. The Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 Family Aircraft are the best-selling jets in the world, with the former continuing to gain ground on the latter.

But aside from their twinjet narrow-body airliners, both Boeing and Airbus are known for creating “bigger and better” aircraft. When the wide-body Airbus A380 became the first full double-decker plane flying when it was released in 2005, it stole the crown from Boeing’s 747 as the world’s largest passenger airliner, putting the “Queen of the Skies” to shame in terms of range and capacity.

But the demand for such huge passenger planes is not keeping up with production. Both Airbus and Boeing have slashed production to a crawl.

Are airlines really getting the best bang for their buck when they order larger Airbus or Boeing jets? Canada-based Bombardier and Brazil-based Embraer have stepped up their game in an effort to compete with the two giants, but both are doing so in very different ways.

Bombardier’s CSeries gives the 737 and A320 a run for the money


Bombardier, the world’s third-largest commercial aircraft manufacturer, is known for its small- to medium-sized regional turboprops and jets such as the Dash 8 and the CRJ.

So how did the Canadian manufacturer propose to compete with Airbus and Boeing?

By creating its own version of the world’s best-selling jet: the CSeries.

Touting the jet as the only aircraft purpose-built for the 100- to 150-seat market, Bombardier says the CSeries family – the 108 to 133-seat CS100 and the 130 to 160-seat CS300 – delivers up to 18 percent reductions on per-passenger costs.

In addition to more profitable route operations, the CSeries’ reduced drag and optimized aerodynamics make it more efficient than its competitors – and it’s also up to 13,000 pounds lighter.

So is Bombardier gaining a foothold in the North American single-aisle, twin-jet market?

Last spring, Delta Air Lines placed an important order of 75 CS100 jets in an effort to reshape its narrow-body fleet. And a few months later, Air Canada placed an order for up to 75 of the new fuel-efficient planes; their purchase agreement included a firm order of 45 of the larger CS300 jets and options for an additional 30 of the same model.

Also, the CSeries really is the first “new” plane to be introduced in the 100 to 150-seat market in roughly 25 years. Prior to the CSeries, the newest plane in this size category was the 150-seat Airbus A320, first introduced in 1988. And all the other aircraft that Boeing and Airbus have in this category are essentially modified versions of existing planes, so they’re not technically considered “new.”

Both the Airbus A318 and A319 are shrunken versions of the A320. And the Boeing 737 NextGen?

It’s just an updated version of the standard 737, which was first introduced in 1968. That novelty and the plane’s efficiency are why Addison Schonland, partner at the consulting group AirInsight, thinks that airlines will invest in the CSeries.

The introduction of the CSeries came with its own set of challenges though. Bombardier had originally hoped its new jet would be in service in late 2013, but that didn’t happen due to a number of issues, most notably with suppliers.

Nearly three years after the anticipated in-service date, the CSeries was officially introduced with Swiss Global Airlines in July 2016. But just months later, the manufacturer announced that engine delivery delays by supplier Pratt & Whitney would lead to only seven deliveries in 2016, instead of the planned 15. Lucky for Delta and Air Canada, the delays haven’t affected their orders at all, since their deals with Bombardier came long after the delays began.

But despite the setbacks, Bombardier has an opportunity to really make its mark in the slightly smaller market, since both Boeing and Airbus are directing their focus to large airplanes with more than 150 seats. “Below 150, I don’t think there is an airplane that is as efficient as the CSeries until Embraer comes along with their E2,” Schonland said. “Bombardier’s CS100 and CS300 are more economically efficient in that category,” he added.

And while the CSeries may prove to be a lucrative option to airlines due to the lower operating costs, which could create a higher return on investment in the long run, Bombardier also had passengers in mind when designing the new jet. At 19 inches, the C Series has the widest seats of any single-aisle aircraft, and it also boasts larger, more easily accessible stowage space.

But will the plane’s efficiency and lower operating costs translate into cheaper fares? “Absolutely,” Schonland said.

“As you increase the efficiency of the airplane, and it can do its work at a lower cost, it immediately translates into lower costs to the airline,” he said. And if one airline’s operating costs are a cent or two lower than another airline’s, that first airline can price their fares accordingly in an effort to get more passengers onto their plane – simply because they can afford to.

Embraer forgoes direct competition by aiming to spark interest in smaller jets


Bigger isn’t always better – at least that’s how Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer sees it. They’re taking a much different approach than Bombardier, by continuing to do what they do best, and then doing it even better.

“Embraer makes a very strong argument that they do not want to compete with Boeing and Airbus,” Schonland said.

Embraer’s bread and butter is smaller regional jets, that in many cases, their larger competitors couldn’t have survived without. Currently, about 900 jets from their ERJ-145 family are flying in five continents operated by more than 30 airlines. These smaller aircraft that seat anywhere from 37 to 50 passengers are needed to transport travelers from smaller airports to larger hubs.

The manufacturer’s larger E-Jet series, a newer line of narrow-body twin-jet aircraft, were built to accommodate 70 to 130 passengers. The E-Jet family was first introduced in 1999 and includes the E170 and E175, which seat roughly 80 passengers, and the stretched E190 and E195, which can seat up to 100. In 2011, Embraer announced plans for a second-generation E-Jet E2 family, expected to enter service in 2018.

According to Schonland, the Brazilian manufacturer is doing the right thing both in tailoring their newer aircraft to the 100- to 135-seat segment and by continuing to focus on what they call “right sizing.”

“When you have a certain kind of market, you put a plane in that market that is the right size for it,” he said.

JetBlue operates more Embraer E190 aircraft than any other U.S. carrier, with 60 in service and firm orders for 24 more. The airline lauds the plane for providing customers “one of the most spacious interiors of all narrow-body aircraft.” Embraer’s selling point on the E190 is that airlines can fly the jet into and out of small markets more effectively because it’s smaller, lighter and the cost per seat is very low.

So, what does this mean for the two “giants” and their potential competitors?


AirInsight has affectionately dubbed Bombardier the “Masters of Stretch” – and that stretching capability is exactly why Schonland believes both Boeing and Airbus are beginning to get a bit nervous about the potential competition. It was during the early 1990s when the folks at Bombardier started thinking, “What if we take this little business jet that seats 10, and we keep everything the same, but we stretch it so that it seats 50?”

According to Schonland, that concept was brilliant. “They reinvented the regional jet business,” he said. “Everyone wanted those planes… they sold them by the hundreds every year.”

A number of these so-called “brilliant moves” is what ultimately allowed Bombardier to experience the great success that they did through the continual stretching of their jets, says Schonland. Before long, the 50 seats became 63 to 78 seats in the CRJ700. Then they stretched that plane to create the 76 to 90-seat CRJ900 – and stretched it even more to create the CRJ1000 which has upwards of 100 seats.

“Whenever you make the plane a little longer, the development cost is low and the economics are greatly impacted,” Schonland said. After all, stretching a plane by 20 percent doesn’t necessarily mean it will be 20 percent heavier.

When Bombardier’s stretching concept was really beginning to take off, Embraer was intrigued. At the time, the Brazilian manufacturer was only making turboprop planes, but they figured they’d be well-suited to compete in the regional jet business, and thus the ERJ family was born. The company began developing the EMB 145 (now known as the ERJ 145) in 1989, and the plane had its first flight in 1995.

The only problem? None of the ERJ variants could be easily stretched. The solution? The E-Jet family. “It was a very clever move,” Schonland said.

Looking ahead to the next 10, 20 or even 50 years, it’s just too hard to say exactly where demand will go in terms of what airlines will want and need. “In hubs, like New York City or London, we’ll probably see a move to much larger planes,” Schonland said, attributing that prediction mainly to the fact that there are only so many take-off and landing slots. For secondary cities, he thinks we’ll simply see an increase in flights and more nonstops.

And even though an urge to compete with the two giants is evident, more so with Bombardier than with Embraer, it’s important to note that the successes of Boeing and Airbus can be used as models – both for the smaller manufacturers as they design and refine their own aircraft, and for the airlines that fly their planes. Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is the manufacturer’s most fuel-efficient plane yet.

The Dreamliner’s unparalleled efficiency and range have allowed airlines to create more than 130 new nonstop routes worldwide. Schonland says that Air Canada, for example, sees the Dreamliner’s success as inspiration for what they’d like to do themselves by adding the CSeries to their fleet, just on a smaller scale.

“The 787 is described by Air Canada as the model for performance in terms of what they plan to do with the C Series,” Schonland said. “They want to do with the CSeries in America, what the 787 has done internationally.”

So, while Embraer hasn’t shown any interest in competing directly with Boeing and Airbus, it will certainly be interesting to see how much more they stretch their E-Jet family, if at all. “Their E2 Jet, the biggest being the E195, seats up to 146 passengers, which is really encroaching on Airbus and Boeing’s space,” Schonland said.

And Bombardier? They didn’t just encroach on that space – the CSeries brought them directly into the middle of it. And even though they currently only manufacture the CS100 and the CS300, Schonland doesn’t think the “Masters of Stretch” will stop there. “They’ll go for a CS500, somewhere in the 150-seat segment,” he said.

For now, Bombardier’s modern and efficient CSeries looks to be the aircraft most likely to stand a chance at competing directly with Boeing and Airbus. And having found their niche in smaller jets, and by continuing to focus on “right sizing,” it doesn’t appear that the needs Embraer continues to fulfill will dwindle anytime soon.

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About Author

Annie Flodin

Annie Flodin

Communications professional and aviation journalist based in Minneapolis. In my free time, I enjoy plane spotting, writing, and spending time outdoors. Twitter and Instagram at @thegreatplanes.

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