Twelve years after Bombardier Inc. executives first outlined plans to build a new family of airliners called the C Series to challenge the single-aisle planes made by Boeing and Airbus, the Canadian company has silenced critics and delivered the first of those planes.
The hand-off of Bombardier's first CS100 airliner to launch customer Swiss International Air Lines took place Wednesday at the plane-maker's manufacturing site in Mirabel, Que., as the sun poked through threatening storm clouds. It was a convenient metaphor for the aircraft program's turbulent history itself.
"It has not been easy. It has been a bumpy journey," Bombardier chief executive Alain Bellemare told reporters. "But we're in a very good place today."
The company first announced plans for the C Series in 2004 but the project was later hobbled by a series of events including poor market conditions and an engine fire during testing. More recently, customer interest in the plane was shaky until Quebec stepped in with a $1-billion (U.S.) investment in the C Series program, which reassured prospective clients that the company would be around for the long term.
The final cost to develop the aircraft is projected to be $5.4-billion, about double an earlier projection.
Bombardier has 370 firm orders for the C Series and more than 300 letters of intent and memorandums of understanding that could become orders. Marquee customers include Delta Air Lines, Air Canada and Korean Air. Company officials say the plane is performing better than its original targets, and that everything is on track for a smooth entry into commercial service with Swiss on July 15.
The average passenger will notice some things about this aircraft they might not be used to. When Bombardier took reporters on a quick flight over Mont Tremblant Wednesday, the airliner took barely 22 seconds to barrel down the runway from standstill and become airborne. The cabin itself, which is quiet enough to speak easily to people around you, feels big for a plane its size, and the windows and luggage bins are equally oversized.
The airliner has the potential to become a magnet for passengers much like other notable aircraft in recent history, says the sales chief of Deutsche Lufthansa AG.
When Lufthansa started flying the A380 superjumbo in 2010, its customers took notice and began searching for the aircraft on specific routes they were taking, said Jens Bischof, executive vice-president of sales and chief commercial officer at Lufthansa. The A380 is the world's largest passenger jet.
"They wanted to experience the double-decker and all the comfort and experience of the airplane," Mr. Bischof said in an interview this month. He said he expects the same reaction for the C Series when it enters commercial service with Swiss, a Lufthansa subsidiary.
Two years late to market and more than $2-billion over budget, the 100- to 160-seat C Series is the first clean-sheet design of a single-aisle airliner in nearly 30 years. Bombardier focused heavily on cabin design to boost the passenger experience.
"With Bombardier stepping up from regional jets and other models to the C Series and really having a big aircraft for short and medium hauls, it's a different ball game," Mr. Bischof said, adding that Swiss will support the new aircraft with an extensive marketing push. "It's really introducing something that's new to the market and really catches the interest of passengers. I'm very certain about it."
Talks with the federal government for an investment in Bombardier to match Quebec's continue, but they have been hobbled by what one source said are "too many conditions" by Ottawa, including changes to the company's dual-class share structure. "The government wants to call the shots," the source said.
Customers such as Delta Air Lines and Air Canada have placed C Series orders in recent weeks, firming up an order book that was previously dominated by smaller carriers and leasing companies.
"There was a lot of speculation, a lot of 'What's going on?' with the company over the past 12 months," said Peter Wojahn, chief technical officer for Swiss. "But as we did see how the program was progressing, we got convinced we were going to make it."