MIAMI — One year ago today, in a hangar in Mirabel, Quebec, the first Bombardier CSeries jet saw the light of day. Or at least the lights of the cameras. Yet the Canadian manufacturer’s largest and most ambitious aircraft to date has been struggling: Struggling to get airborne, to stay aloft, and to attract orders.

(Credits: Chris Sloan)
(Credits: Chris Sloan)

The new, clean sheet airplane features a number of firsts for Bombardier. The aircraft features Pratt & Whitney PurePower geared turbofan engines, which are significantly quieter than current engines and burn up to 25% less fuel than similarly sized competitors. Between the engines and other major redesigns, the company touts 20% fuel savings over existing aircraft.  Passengers will experience larger windows, and the advantages to a 3-2 configured economy cabin.

While the roll-out on March 7, 2013 was glitzy, glamorous, and featured not one but three airplanes, it only temporarily masked the problems that have plagued it. Indeed, even by then, the program was already running late. The airplane’s first flight was originally intended for the second half of 2012, eventually gelling into a planned December launch. One month before the scheduled flight, in November, Bombardier delayed the aircraft seven months into June 2013. The company cited issues with suppliers as the primary reason behind the decision. Reports later further attributed the delay to assembly issues with fly-by-wire systems and fuselage/wingbox components.

The airplane received flight safety certifications from Transport Canada in May, buoying hopes that June would see the maiden flight. As the month wore, however, it became increasingly clear that a maiden flight was not going to happen. Sure enough, in the last days of June the company announced pushed back first flight into July. Once again the company remained tight-lipped on the reasons, stating only that they were software related. It did insist, however, the problems were not related to the fly-by-wire systems.

One month later, the program was in a familiar position as Bombardier delayed first flight for the third time in late July. This time, the manufacturer did not set a firm date, stating only that it would fly “in the coming weeks”. And, once again, the manufacturer declined to share details on the hold up, stating only that the highly technical last steps turned out to be more time consuming than it planned for.

Finally, seven weeks later, the first CSeries aircraft took to the skies over Mirabel, Quebec on September 18, 2013. Onlookers remarked at how quiet the airplane was as it flew over. Flight test vehicle one, or FTV1 for short, spent two and one half hours in the air before returning back to home base.

Unfortunately, the ground is largely where the test fleet has spent much of its time since. To date the fleet has logged in 114.5 hours in the air, according to program watcher Paolo Cerutti. Bombardier declined to confirm the number for this article, or provide one of its own, saying only that the figure was “close”.

Regardless, it is clear that the airplane has a long way to go. It needs 2,400 hours of inflight time, completing thousands of tests, before it can be approved by government regulators. At the current pace, it would take roughly four years before reaching the mark.

(Credits: Bombardier)
(Credits: Bombardier)

Much like the pre-flight problems, Bombardier has not been terribly transparent about whatever is, or has been, holding up the flight test program. Executives told Aviation International News during the Singapore Airshow in February 2014 that it would “not pinpoint any one system.” The company has repeatedly said, however, that it hasn’t seen any major problems, instead chalking it up to a desire to “take the required time to ensure a flawless entry-into-service.”

The problems continued as Bombardier was forced to admit the program would be further delayed in mid-January of 2014. The company pushed back entry into service into the second half of 2015, nine months behind the previous mark of late 2014. Worse, the company laid off 1,700 employees in late January, citing the need to conserve cash for the CSeries. Worse still, cost estimates for the program took a sudden jump in mid-February by half of one million dollars to US$4.4 billion. Investors fled and stock prices tumbled, dropping nine percent the day of the announcement.

So far existing orders haven’t taken a hit, but the track record has been less than spectacular. As of today the airplane can lay claim to 447 orders across eighteen customers, according to the company. Of those, less than half are firm: 201. The mark is far below the company’s oft-stated goal of 300 by the time the airplane enters service.

(Credits: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)
(Credits: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

The pace of orders leads to questions about the programs ability to make that mark. The bulk of the firm orders, 138 to be exact, were placed before the delays began back in November of 2012. The order book has been stagnant ever since, with only sixty-three firm orders. The same trend is also true of non-firmed orders such as letters of intent and provisional agreements, which posted a net gain of 32 in the past fourteen months for a total of 246. The numbers include underwhelming turn-outs at the Dubai and Singapore Airshows. While others walked away with double-digit orders from each, Bombardier locked in eight firm orders combined: one to Iraqi Airways and the other to an undisclosed customer.

Combined, the figures show that less than one quarter of orders of any type have been booked since the delays began.

(Credits: Bombardier)
(Credits: Bombardier)

The test program may be beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, however. True, the first airplane may have spent the first several months languishing by itself, but two additional airplanes have since joined the fleet. FTV2 took its first flight on January 3rd with a goal of testing electrical and fly-by-wire systems. A third airplane, FTV3, joined the program two months later to the day on March 3rd. It will focus on avionics testing.

The pace of sorties has picked up steadily since the introduction of FTV2, with the fleet now standing at an estimated fifty-two flights according to program watcher Sylvain Faust. The fleet moving, in part, to Wichita, Kansas where the weather is better, has helped.

The program is also “planning to be able to convert” some of the hours spent testing on the ground into air time hours. When pressed for details on how many hours might be eligible or what is involved in the process, Bombardier replied that “it is too early to give details.”

Between conversion hours and the final two aircraft set to join the fleet, Bombardier is confident the that first airplane, a CS100, is “on track…for an entry into service in the second half of 2015” to launch customer Lufthansa. The larger CS300 will follow six months later, it says.

Robert Mann, an aviation analyst and consultant based on Long Island, agrees that the increases in flight test activity are promising. We’re “not seeing a monotonic increase, but a geometric increase,” he says, “And that’s good. Hopefully it continues.”

Hopefully is the key word for Mann, who says it is “critical” the program hit its marks from here on out if it wants to “have any life beyond 2015”. He continues, “They simply can’t suffer another anomaly, whether it be a delay or difficulty in flight test. If there were any incident, you would see the order book evaporate.”

The Embraer E2. (Credits: Embraer)
The Embraer E2. (Credits: Embraer)

Even if things meet targets, Mann eyes another obstacle looming down the road: Embraer’s E2. The jet, which is a redesign of its popular E170/190 line of regional planes, will compete with lower density versions of the CSeries as early as 2018. Crucially, it has already received 200 firm orders. Mann believes that the Embraer jet, which is based on proven technology rather than clean-sheet, may wind up pushing the CSeries order book from stagnated into flat-lined as the E2 “takes on a life of its own.”

Scott Hamilton, of Leeham News and Comment, is not quite so doom and gloom about the CSeries’ long term prospects. Hamilton says that, while the 100-149 seat market sector “is only a fraction of the 24,000 single aisle airplanes Boeing forecasts” to be needed, “it is still significant enough to be viable” for Bombardier.

He believes that “neither the A319neo or 737-7 MAX match the economics of the CS300…[while] the A320neo does not compete with the CS300” (he discounted the CS300 extra capacity option, which has yet to sell). As for the E2 threat, Hamilton plays it down: “Embraer is at the lower end of the sector with the E1 and E2.” Consequently, “Embraer will dominate the 100-125 seat sector,” but the market for 126-150 seat gap will remain open for Bombardier to dominate.

Both agree, though, that the business of airplane making remains challenging, even for established companies such as Bombardier. “It’s a complicated business…as you bring more technology to bear you find more difficulties; some that were anticipated and some that were not. Particularly technology in a bleeding edge sense for the manufacturer, [tech that is a] step beyond the current operating envelope.” says Mann.

Bombardier need look no further than Boeing for an example of the extreme challenges new technology can pose. Hamilton points out the American manufacturer had a “nightmarish test program with the 787”, never mind the well-publicized entry-into-service disaster the airplane faced since.  Still, the Airbus A350 seem to be going smoothly in comparison, leaving Bombardier’s progress “somewhere in between”, according to Hamilton. “It all boils down to the unexpected: will the flight testing be smooth, or will something unexpected emerge?” says Hamilton.

While we wait for new information in the coming weeks and as the airplane celebrates one year after roll-out, where is the program? A long way from hell, but certainly nowhere near heaven.