Delta should double down on CSeries, fuel savings

Many of us in the aviation field are in serious need of an airsickness bag, given the turbulence we’ve experienced recently over the Bombardier CSeries. That’s the new aircraft developed by the Canadian-based manufacturer that bridges the size gap between regional jets and their larger cousins like the 737 and A320 families, built by Boeing and Airbus respectively. It’s marketed as burning less fuel per passenger than anything else in the skies.

The source of that turbulence is an interest-free loan the Canadian government provided to Bombardier. Competing aircraft manufacturers see this as a government subsidy. The U.S. Department of Commerce issued a preliminary decision in favor of U.S.-based Boeing in a trade dispute over the CSeries on September 26, 2017, proposing import duties totaling 300 percent. Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, has also asked the World Trade Organization to rule on whether the subsidy is in violation of trade agreements. Bombardier’s CS100 aircraft goes head-to-head with Embraer’s E195-E2, while the larger CS300 competes with Boeing’s 737-700.

Currently, Delta Air Lines is the largest customer for Bombardier, with 75 CS100 aircraft on order. Could a fourfold increase in the price cause the world’s largest carrier to cancel its order, and maybe spell the end of the CSeries program? Delta reaffirmed its desire for a 110-seat single-aisle jet, saying at the same time that it will not pay import duties. Then, on October 16, 2017, Bombardier announced that it would hand over a majority stake in the CSeries program to Airbus at no cost. The European plane manufacturer will assist in both selling and producing the jets, setting up a production line at the Airbus plant in Mobile, Alabama. Many analysts believe that this will circumvent the Commerce Department decision and the proposed 300% import duty.

Now, I’m not an expert in international trade, an economist, or a fortuneteller, so I won’t discuss how many jobs the partnership between Airbus and Bombardier may create, or how much money may be added to the U.S. economy. However, I am an environmental engineer with an acumen for transportation fuel use and emissions, so that’s the flight path I’m going to remain on. The facts are that the addition of the Bombardier CS100 to Delta’s fleet will lead to fuel savings for the carrier and, therefore, lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

We can quantify the amount of fuel savings that the CS100 will provide to Delta. The carrier said the first CS100s will replace some of the 76-seat regional jets it now uses on routes to and from its New York hubs. Using data available from the U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) and the Piano aircraft performance and design software, I modeled the average flight distance and passenger load factor for flights operated by Delta’s regional affiliates from January through July 2017 on Embraer E175 and Canadair CRJ-900 regional jets in and out of JFK and LaGuardia airports. The CS100 had 17%–19% lower fuel use per passenger compared to the E175 and CRJ-900, assuming the same percentage of seats are filled across all aircraft.

The logical next step for the carrier would be to replace its Boeing 717-200s with CS100s, because the two aircraft have identical seating capacity. Delta might also utilize the CS100s on routes over which it currently uses Airbus A319s and Boeing 737-700s, since the 110-seat jet could handle the passenger load. Again, using BTS data for the first seven months of 2017 for Delta’s network-wide A319, 717, and 737 operations, I modeled fuel use, given average route distance and passenger load. The CSeries, on average, would have 27%–29% lower fuel use than these three aircraft, assuming equal passenger numbers.

Considering fuel burn and CO2 alone, Delta Air Lines should not only keep its order for 75 CS100s but also take the options for 50 additional CS100s and place an order for the 130-seat CS300s. The carrier needs to replace a number of aging, fuel-guzzling aircraft in its fleet, starting with more than 100 McDonnell Douglas MD-88s and 10 Boeing 737-700s. A recent forecast of the U.S. commercial jet fleet from ESG Aviation Services projects a full retirement of Delta’s MD-88s by the end of 2019, and the 737-700s by the end of 2023. Delta is looking at the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX families as replacements for their larger narrow-body aircraft.

Another advantage for the CSeries is that the aircraft will easily meet the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) CO2 standard. While new aircraft currently in production are not affected by the ICAO standard until 2028, we are unsure what the U.S. EPA will do in setting a national aircraft standard. The CSeries, which is a “clean sheet” aircraft design that can support the trifecta of technologies to reduce fuel burn — more efficient engines, improved aerodynamics, and lightweight materials — holds a comfortable margin to ICAO’s standard. The Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max families also meet the CO2 standard, but with smaller margins because both are re-engines: existing, less efficient airframes with a new advanced engine.

I know I said I wasn’t a fortuneteller, but here’s one thing I will predict: the CSeries saga is far from over, so keep your seatbelt on.