Airbus takes control of Bombardier CSeries in rebuff to U.S. threat

MONTREAL/PARIS (Reuters) – Airbus SE agreed on Monday to buy a majority stake in Bombardier Inc’s CSeries jetliner program, grabbing control of a struggling competitor at the second attempt and giving the Canadian plane-and-train-maker an unexpected boost in its costly trade dispute with Boeing Co.

The deal, which would come at no cost for Toulouse, France-based Airbus, would give the European planemaker a 50.01 percent interest in CSeries Aircraft Limited Partnership (CSALP), which manufactures and sells the jets, the companies said.

While Bombardier will lose control of a plane program developed at a cost of $6 billion, it gives the CSeries improved economies of scale and a better sales network. The 110-to-130 seat plane has not secured a new order in 18 months and is being threatened by a possible 300 percent duty on U.S. imports.

Bombardier said the “partnership should more than double the value of the CSeries program.”

“Bombardier no longer has control of this jet, but then again, it’s better to have a 30 percent share of a very successful program than to struggle with a highly risky program that was perhaps too big for them from the start,” said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia.

Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders said the company has offered to assemble some of the narrowbody jets at its U.S. plant in Alabama for orders by American carriers.

The U.S. assembly line would mean the jets would not be subject to possible U.S. anti-subsidy and anti-dumping duties of 300 percent, Bombardier Chief Executive Alain Bellemare said on a media conference call.

Bellemare called the deal with Airbus, which was first attempted unsuccessfully in 2015, a “strategic” decision that is expected to close in the second half of 2018.

“We’re doing this deal here not because of this Boeing petition. We are doing this deal because it is the right strategic move for Bombardier. And it makes good strategic sense for Airbus,” Bellemare said, referring to Boeing’s complaint that the Canadian company received illegal subsidies and dumped CSeries planes at “absurdly low” prices.

But a Boeing spokesman dismissed the agreement as a “questionable deal between two state-subsidized competitors” to try to skirt a recent U.S. trade finding against the CSeries.

Bombardier said the deal would not result in job losses, despite the U.S. assembly line and would keep the company’s head office in Montreal. Unions, while concerned about the Alabama assembly line and ceding control of the program to Airbus, said the deal will ultimately benefit the program.

“Ultimately, the U.S. actions have created a stronger Bombardier,” said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, which represents some of Bombardier’s unionized workers in Canada.

The Boeing-Bombardier dispute has snowballed into a bigger multilateral trade dispute, with British Prime Minister Theresa May wading into the debate and asking U.S. President Donald Trump to intervene in order save British jobs.

FILE PHOTO: Bombardier’s C-series aircraft is pictured at an airport during its static demo event in New Delhi, India October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

Bombardier is the largest manufacturing employer in Northern Ireland, which is the poorest of the United Kingdom’s four nations and remains mired in political sensitivities after emerging from decades of armed sectarian conflict.

BOOST FOR BELFAST

On Monday, the leader of the Northern Irish party propping up Britain’s minority government said Airbus’s deal with Bombardier was “incredibly significant news” for Belfast.

Talks for the deal between Airbus and Bombardier first started in August. Enders said the deal was different from an earlier round of talks in 2015, when he abruptly ordered an end to negotiations. He said the CSeries’ has since been certified, entered service and was performing well.

“It’s an entirely different situation,” he said.

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Delta Air Lines Inc, which ordered 75 CSeries planes, said after the announcement that it looked forward to introducing the planes into its fleet.

Under the deal, Bombardier will own about 31 percent, while Investissement Québec, the investment arm of the province of Quebec, will hold 19 percent. In 2015, Quebec took a 49 percent stake in the CSeries program for $1 billion, although its stake was more recently diluted to 38 percent.

Quebec’s largest pension fund, which holds a 30 percent stake in Bombardier’s rail division, said the decision “strengthens the company, improves its prospects for growth, and makes the company more robust over the long term.”

Bombardier is in the middle of a 5-year turnaround plan after considering bankruptcy because of a cash-crunch after developing multiple plane programs simultaneously including the CSeries.

The deal, which will be subject to Canadian government approval, also provides Airbus warrants exercisable to acquire up to 100 million Class B Shares of Bombardier.

“In my review, I’ll be looking to see how this deal will benefit Canadians, support our aerospace sector and create good jobs,” Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, said in a statement.

Airbus will provide procurement, sales and marketing, and customer support expertise to CSALP, the companies said.

There will be no cash contribution by any of the partners, nor will CSALP assume any financial debt, they said.

Bombardier expects a $400 million loss in commercial aircraft this year, but has set a breakeven target for 2020.

Additional reporting by Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru and Alana Wise in Atlanta; Writing by Denny Thomas; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila, Mary Milliken and Himani Sarkar