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As Bombardier launches CS300, doubts remain for company’s success

CS300 flight test vehicle is seen during high speed taxi run.

Bombardier

Bombardier Inc. is banking on the C Series to carry aerospace revenue over the next two decades as its CRJ regional jets fade into history. But even as the larger – and more popular – version of the plane is about to make its maiden flight, major hurdles remain in the company's path.

Two years late to market and about $2-billion (U.S.) over its initial $3.4-billion budget estimate, the C Series program is set to receive a much-needed boost this week as Bombardier prepares to send its CS300 aircraft into the sky.

Company officials are also expected to give a sense of how the smaller CS100 is performing in its own airborne and ground testing – crucial data as Bombardier's sales team works to win more orders ahead of a planned commercial launch later this year.

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Still, it remains an upward climb for the world's third-largest aerospace manufacturer. Convincing customers to buy a jet that may or may not be delivered in 2015 as much bigger rivals are aggressively peddling their wares is a challenge – especially when Bombardier's finances are also under pressure.

"The plane is an engineering marvel; It really is a very well-engineered airplane," said Addison Schonland of U.S.-based commercial aviation consultancy AirInsight. "The difficulty has been Bombardier's resource constraints. It's the capital and the people – getting the job done, that's slowed them down."

The company has taken steps to address its cash issue, announcing earlier this month it would sell $750-million (Canadian) in shares, raise $1.5-billion (U.S.) in long-term debt and suspend its dividend to help pay for $2-billion in aerospace capital expenditures this year. Initial doubts that it could raise the equity were put to rest as the stock order book swelled to roughly twice the size of the deal. The company later increased the offering 25 per cent to $938-million (Canadian).

Bombardier is counting on the C Series to almost double its yearly revenue near the end of the decade, projecting it will tally up to $8-billion (U.S.) in sales annually as the company cranks out 120 planes a year during initial production.

The entire business case of the aircraft rests on the premise that people want more direct routes between cities without having to travel through hubs. Bombardier believes that airlines will be willing to buy a plane offering between 100 and 150 seats to accomplish that, as long as the new jet can deliver a promised 15 per cent savings on operating costs and 20 per cent on fuel burn.

The company is making two models – the smaller CS100 with up to 125 seats and the larger CS300 with up to 160. Bombardier has predicted that demand for jets seating 100 to 149 people will hit as many as 7,100 units over the next 20 years and that the company could win half those sales.

But the program has problems. Chief among them, say critics, is the order book.

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Bombardier has tallied 243 firm orders for C Series models so far – the equivalent of about two years of production. It has said it wants about 300 by the time the CS100 enters commercial service.

Why the Canadian plane maker hasn't attracted more orders or boosted its sales target, amid two years of delays, is a matter of debate. The company has said part of the issue is timing, that potential clients look at the current order book and delivery schedule and "feel it puts them far in time" before they could take possession of any jets.

Others point to different explanations.

AirInsight says pricing has been a tricky matter for Bombardier. While giants Airbus and Boeing can use their scale and multiyear backlogs to offer steep discounts to potential customers, luring them into slightly bigger planes such as the A320, Bombardier can't. "[They] cannot win a price war," AirInsight says.

Bombardier customers have also been bewildered by recent events at the company, says aviation consultancy Leeham Co. That, in turn, has undermined their confidence.

Several key Bombardier aerospace sales executives have left the company in recent months for personal and other reasons, including sales chief Ray Jones. The management changes have extended all the way to the chief executive suite, with Pierre Beaudoin handing the reins to outsider and aerospace veteran Alain Bellemare earlier this month.

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Meanwhile, several announced C Series sales are thought to be on the bubble, including the largest single order, which is from U.S. carrier Republic Airways. Other sales being questioned include those of Russia-based buyers Ilyushin Finance and VIM Airlines as the Russian economy deteriorates under the weight of the oil price collapse and sanctions.

In the near term, Bombardier's challenge is to hold on to current customers and show potential new ones that its two C Series models can deliver the operating advantages that were promised. All within an environment of tight liquidity and ballooning debt.

"Certifying an airplane is complex," said one former senior Bombardier executive. "Certifying an airplane with budget constraints is even harder."

The value equation remains intact for the C Series, the executive said. And there are many markets where the 180 seats offered by Boeing and Airbus aircraft are just too many.

The source noted that better airplanes ultimately prevail in the market, pointing to how the McDonnell Douglas MD 80 supplanted the Boeing 727 by offering two engines compared with three and a reduction in pilots to two from three.

"At the end of the day, the C Series will be for probably 10 or 20 years the best in class, twin-engine single-aisle with less than 160 seats. It just has to get there and that really is the deal isn't it? It just has to get there."

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About the Authors
Quebec business correspondent

Nicolas Van Praet is Quebec correspondent for the Report on Business. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2014 after eight years at the National Post, where he covered the North American auto industry crisis and several other major stories. More

Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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