MONTREAL — Bombardier’s long awaited CSeries program is finally seeing the light at the end of a very long tunnel, as its first CS100 aircraft is on its final testing phase before its handover to launch customer SWISS later this summer.
The program is over two years behind schedule, and more than $2 billion over its original budget of $3.4 billion.
During a private media tour of Bombardier’s main assembly plant in Mirabel, Rob Dewar, Bombardier’s Vice President for the CSeries program, said that the first CS100 will enter service in June, while the first CS300—the program’s larger variant—will be delivered to airBaltic by the second half of the year.
airBaltic’s first CS300, which will become the backbone of the carrier’s jet fleet, has joined the final assembly line in Mirabel, stepping into the relatively short process until it’s delivered to the airline. With 13 CS300 aircraft ordered, with options for seven more on its backlog, the carrier also operates 12 Bombardier Q400Next Gen turbo prop aircraft, all deployed on more than 60 destinations across Europe.
SWISS is the launch customer for the CS100 aircraft program after Lufthansa (parent company) signed a firm purchase agreement for 30 aircraft in 2009.
Route Proving is on track
The first production CS100 aircraft is running route-proving flights in Europe with SWISS. “The aircraft has performed very well, with quick 20-minute turn-around times,” Dewar reported.
The CS100 is currently flying from Zurich to Hannover, Vienna, Brussels, and Warsaw, getting all ground personnel acquainted with the type of aircraft before it joins Swiss.
“At the moment, the aircraft has completed over 450 hours of a function-and-reliability test program,” he said. No dispatch or mechanical interruptions during these tests have occurred. “And the performance statistics are much better than Bombardier advertised in its brochure,” according to Dewar.
The CS300 program is also in the midst of a heavy flight testing phase. “This program is very low risk, in comparison to the CS100,” Dewar clarifies. The CS300 is very similar to its smaller variant and the testing procedures are very much alike.
The first CS300 test aircraft, which was available for a quick visit during the media tour in Mirabel, has reached the 500-hour test mark, while the second joined the testing phase in early March.
“The program has been on track for certification as quick as six months after the CS100,” said Dewar. The CS100 was blessed with Transport Canada’s certification in December, while FAA and EASA (Europe) certification are still well underway.
The CSeries Product
“We don’t compete against Boeing or Airbus,” was the VP’s initial statement when asked about Bombardier’s newest program market segmentation, which still remains a doubt.
In seat and range terms, the closest competitor to the CS300 is the Airbus A319. “Yes, we could compete against the A319,” he nodded. “But the CS300 is 12,000 pounds lighter, and offers over 10% lower operating costs with a larger cabin, overhead bins, wider seats, and unmatched technology.”
Able to accommodate up to 160 passengers, with an optimum two-class configuration of 137, the aircraft indeed ventures into A319 and 737-700 territory.
Nevertheless, the VP reaffirmed that the CSeries was specifically designed for a unique market segment. “It is a longer-range single-aisle 100-150 seat aircraft with a five abreast seating configuration.” Dewar considers Embraer to be its only competitor.
Asked about the expected use of the aircraft’s capabilities, Dewar confirmed some customers are planning to use the aircraft to its full range potential, including airBaltic to Southern Europe destinations, and Air Canada on its transcontinental routes.
“The aircraft can do both—short and longer haul routes. It can fly routes from 45 minutes to five hours. It’s very versatile,” he said.
During the tour at Bombardier’s impressive assembly line north of Montreal, Dewar explained that six CSeries have been built. The manufacturer hopes to deliver from 15 to 20 units in 2016 to Swiss and airBaltic, and ramp up production progressively until reaching a production rate ranging between 90 and 120 aircraft by 2020.
Air Canada’s Contribution
Canada’s flag carrier recently signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) for the acquisition of 75 CS300 aircraft, including 45 firm orders plus 30 options, all of which can be converted to CS100.
Neither the airline nor the manufacturer have disclosed the unit price for the deal; however, at list prices, it is estimated to reach US$3.8 billion.
“It was a competitive deal,” Dewar said. “It was a heavily competed campaign and was aligned with the needs of Air Canada.”
Asked if the government had tilted the scale in favor of Bombardier for Air Canada’s order, Dewar claims that, “If it had been a political deal, it would have happened a long time ago.” According to him, Air Canada wanted to see the aircraft doing fine and meeting the promised performance, before committing with Bombardier.
“The operating cost and what it does for the airline trumps everything,” added Dewar.
Air Canada and Bombardier have been working together a long-time, with over 30 years of a successful partnership. The airline and its regional carrier, Air Canada Express, operate a large mix of over 120 regional jets and turbo prop aircraft manufactured in Canada.
With 678 total commitments from 16 customers since the program was launched in 2008, only 243 are firm orders. At least 40 of these are in jeopardy after Republic Airlines filed for Chapter 11 in late February, representing a 16% of the total firm backlog, equivalent to at least $3 billion at list prices.
When asked about the situation, Robert Dewar claims to be “monitoring offering support” to Republic. However, the troubled airline stated that in its restructuring plans, a simplification of its operational fleet would take place, the fleet being reduced to one aircraft type: the Embraer 170/175 family of aircraft.
Republic sees the delivery of new CSeries aircraft as added costs, requiring an additional operating certificate, which at the moment could be out of the question for the airline.
Despite the length of time since the program was launched, Dewar still sees a lot of potential for the CSeries in both North America and Europe.
“These two regions are big replacement markets. They have old airplanes that need to be replaced, and that’s where our opportunities are,” he said.
According to the VP, big opportunities lay in the point-to-point Asian market as well as in the replacement of old aircraft around the globe.
“The level of interest from other airlines since we began the worldwide demos has increased dramatically,” said the VP. As the world watches with attention the entry into service with Swiss, new orders may arrive sooner rather than later. Until then, the Bombardier CSeries program’s success is still questioned by many.