BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Trapped in a fish war

MICHAEL ROSE September 12 1988
BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Trapped in a fish war

MICHAEL ROSE September 12 1988

Trapped in a fish war

Over the past few years, a Canadian corporate name has entered several respected French-language dictionaries. The word is “Canadair” and it is formally defined as a water bomber, an aircraft that dumps water onto fires. Having a brand name enter into general usage is an advantage that only a few other internationally known products enjoy, and that is buoying the spirits of executives at Canadair’s head office in Montreal. But as the former Crown corporation prepares for production of a new generation of its worldrenowned CL-215 water bomber, there are troubling delays in signing a critical first contract with France—the company’s most important foreign customer.

Laurent Beaudoin, chairman of Canadair’s parent company, Bombardier Inc. of Montreal, has expressed concern that the aircraft contract has become entangled in the contentious dispute between Canada and France over fishing rights off the south coast of Newfoundland. Beaudoin said after his company’s annual meeting in June that a $150-million proposal to sell 12 water bombers to France—and as much as $100 million a year for Bombardier to manufacture some components of the new French Airbus passenger jet—may have become “caught up in the fishnets.” External Affairs officials in Ottawa deny that the dispute is in any way linked to the proposed Canadair transactions. Still, not one of the redesigned water bombers—designated the CL215T—has been sold, and, with the first prototypes due to fly early in 1989, Canadair executives say that they are concerned about anything that might thwart the critical French sale.

France has played an important role in the development of the aircraft since the squat, amphibious plane was first designed in 1966, after extensive consultations with North American forest-fire experts over what type of aircraft would best suit their needs. It was an initial order of 15 planes each from France and Quebec that led to the first sale in 1969. Since then, Canadair has sold 82 additional water

bombers to countries in Europe, Asia and South America, as well as to the federal government and six provinces. The CL-215T will have stronger, more fuel-efficient Pratt and Whitney turboprop engines and it will carry 1,350 gallons of water compared with its

predecessor’s 1,176 gallons. Canadair undertook the $50-million redesign program in part because of the French interest in upgrading its fleet of CL-215s.

Canadair’s vice-president in charge of marketing the new aircraft, Anthony Guerin, said that technical and financial negotiations are complete and only French government approval is needed. Guerin, however, would not speculate on what will happen if the French do not buy the Canadair planes. But he added,

“The sale to France is very, very important to this program.”

Meanwhile, External Affairs officials in Ottawa say that the StPierre-Miquelon fishing dispute is not endangering the deal. Said department spokesman Abbie Dann: “We don’t accept that suggestion. The water bomber proposal has been well received by the French, and things look promising.”

Still, there is a huge market at stake. Canadair’s surveys show a potential market for 150 to 200 water bombers by the end of the century, generating up to $2.5 billion in sales. Currently, the CL-215 is the only aircraft specifically designed to fight forest fires, although other companies, including Conair Ltd. of Abbotsford, B.C., can convert conventional aircraft for that purpose.

However, Canadair is taking its competition seriously, and officials have decided to take a new tack in marketing the CL-215T. They now stress the plane’s large cargo area, which can be used for military operations, conventional transport and medical evacuations. Another important selling point is that amphibious aircraft require only rudimentary landing and docking facilities. Said Guerin:

_ “We have a good head

start on everybody else and we want to keep it that way.” To that end, a team of Canadair executives plans to fly to England this week to promote their aircraft, but they will also be listening with hope for a decision from France about whether a purchase of the CL-215T will keep their firm at the forefront of the forest fire-fighting business.

5 -MICHAEL ROSE in § Montreal, with HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa

HILARY MACKENZIE