Bombardier's (NASDAQOTH:BDRAF) troubled program, the CSeries, is showing signs of revival. For one, testing has resumed in full swing and the planes have bagged more orders. But analysts have put their bets against Bombardier meeting the 2015-end deadline for service entry. It is a battle against time for the company. Here's a look into the program's progress and its prospects.
Plenty of ground to be made up
Bombardier had plans to push the CSeries, launched in 2004, to service by 2013. But due to some software glitches and bad weather, the first test flight was delayed three times. The CSeries made its first test flight in September 2013 and deferred the service entry to the second-half of 2015 in order to complete the required hours of test flights. CSeries would require flying 2,400 hours before making its first commercial flight.
Some analysts think it might be impossible for Bombardier to deliver the jets on time. And there is a strong reason for that. In May, Bombardier had to abandon test flights as one of the jet's engine caught fire. After the project was grounded, Bombardier and engine maker Pratt and Whitney, arm of American conglomerate United Technologies, handled the situation quickly and affirmed that flights would resume soon.
Before being grounded, Bombardier had flown 330 hours since its first test flight last September, which was just 14% of the total required flight time. Goldman Sachs' analyst Noah Poponak told Financial Post, "Bombardier has already exhausted 50% of schedule time for the entire test flight hours that could create difficulties to deliver the jets as promised." Poponak estimates that if the jets are able to resume test flights by September, they will have to fly for average 160 hours each month to meet the 2015-end deadline. Since the first test flight, the jets have made an average monthly flight of 37 hours. Poponak expects another six month delay.
Also, in a Canadian Business news report, Canaccord Genuity's analyst David Tyerman thinks a short delay of around six months could be acceptable, but if the service entry is pushed back another two-three years, then it will have a serious impact on the CSeries' future. Aerospace consultant Richard Aboulafia, too, believes that it would be a strategic victory for Bombardier if it can deliver the jets within first half of 2016.
Management is confident
Despite such pessimism, Bombardier looks confident to deliver the jets as promised. The company reaffirmed the deadline after the CSeries resumed flights and in the company's recently concluded third quarter 2014 conference call. During the call, Bombardier's Chief Pierre Beaudoin sounded quite optimistic about the progress of CSeries, and added that the test flights are right on track with healthy rate of average fly hours. He said he is "very confident" of meeting the service deadline.
Since this September, CSeries has flown roughly 120 hours, bringing the total flight hours to 450. Bombardier has split testing between Mirabel (near Montreal) and Wichita so that time is not lost because of weather-enforced delays that it had to go through last year. The company expects the fly time to increase substantially in the coming months. In fact, the company is on track to accomplish certain tests to be eligible for the certification and it's expected that the requirement will be fulfilled with fewer hours of test flights. After it receives certification, flight hours could come down significantly.
New orders coming its way
With a series of delays and cost overruns, a much-needed boost was required. And it came in the form of a deal from the leasing subsidiary of Australian investment firm Macquarie Group in late September after the test flights had resumed. Macquarie AirFinance has ordered 40 CS300 jets (the larger version), while keeping an option to buy another 10 jets later. Bombardier expects to deliver the jets within 2017-2019.
This is the second biggest order for the CSeries after Republic Airways' $3 billion order for 40 CS300 jets way back in 2010. Republic Airways CEO Bryan Bedford has confirmed that there's no plan to cancel the order as he doesn't see the delays to be too upsetting. He believes that the plane's "game changing" technology will have a good appeal in the single-aisle market.
It's true that the CSeries is currenly facing some difficulties, but there is a huge opportunity in the single-aisle market that could drive sales going forward. Boeing's commercial airplanes marketing vice president Randy Tinseth says, "The single-aisle market is the fastest-growing and most-dynamic segment due to the emergence of low-cost carriers."
With the Macquarie order, Bombardier has gathered total firm orders for 243 jets. But the company is still short by 57 to reach its target of getting firm orders for 300 jets before entering service. It also has a conditional order backlog of roughly 320 jets. There are signs of it bagging more orders since United Airlines is said to be in talks with Bombardier for the smaller CS100, and if that happens it will be a big breakthrough for the jet maker as United Airlines, until now, has only flown Airbus and Boeing planes.
Bombardier has been gathering all its expertise and efforts to make the CSeries a roaring success -- from expediting test flights to showcasing the planes to prospective buyers. Though the order pace looks slow, it's getting nearer to the target steadily. Also, bringing down the total test flight hours could help it attract more firm orders.
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