MONTREAL (Reuters) - Canada's Bombardier Inc (BBDb.TO) took the wraps off its $3.4 billion challenge to industry leaders Boeing (BA.N) and Airbus EAD.PA on Thursday, announcing "solid progress" on the development program for its largest plane to date.
Bombardier's single-aisle CSeries planes, promised with seating for up to 160 passengers, represent the company's attempt to break into the lower end of a 100-to-200-seat market heavily defended by its U.S. and European rivals.
China and Russia are also preparing to challenge the trans-Atlantic duopoly over the largest segment of the global jet market, valued at $2 trillion at list prices over the next 20 years.
Bombardier is aiming to capture 50 percent of the 100-to-149 seat aircraft sub-category over the next 20 years - an estimated $430 billion market, said Mike Arcamone, president of Bombardier Commercial Aircraft.
In the meantime, Bombardier is under pressure to ramp up its order book and ensure no delays. On Thursday, company officials told an audience of executives, analysts and reporters that the program met a number of milestones over the last few months.
"We believe today's discussions of the status of various components, tests completed to date and the status of the flight test vehicles should help build confidence that first flight should occur as scheduled in June," said Chris Murray, an analyst at PI Financial.
Bombardier, based in Montreal, is the world's fourth-largest plane maker, behind Boeing, Airbus and Brazil's Embraer SA. Its hangar includes regional jets and propeller planes, as well as a range of executive aircraft.
It formally unveiled its newest plane after a glitzy multimedia presentation at its Mirabel facility near Montreal, lifting a large screen to reveal one of the aircraft.
Bathed in blue light, the white and olive-gray jet had a red-orange and white nose, its two Pratt & Whitney engines spinning gently.
"It's not a paper airplane, it's a real airplane," Arcamone said. "It's not a re-engined aircraft we are putting into the market ... I can tell you we are a very serious contender."
The company said it was transitioning to flight testing ahead of a first flight scheduled by the end of June.
At list prices, the 110-seat CS100 costs $62 million and the 130-seat CS300 costs $71 million. In contrast, the Boeing 737 MAX costs $82 million and Airbus' A319 NEO costs $88.8 million.
Latvia-based airBaltic is one of the first customers to purchase a higher-density 148-seat version of the plane, the company said.
Bombardier said it would also offer a CS300 with an option for up to 160 seats, either as an initial order or as a retrofitted plane.
A big buyer is Germany's Deutsche Lufthansa (LHAG.DE), the first airline to put in a firm order. Lufthansa Executive Vice President Nico Buchholz was present at the event, along with executives from Swiss International Air Lines SWIN.UL and Republic Airways.
Bombardier said executives from about 15 customers and potential customers attended the event, though most asked the planemaker to keep their anonymity.
Its book currently stands at 148 firm orders, excluding a commitment for 32 CS300 jets by Russia's Ilyushin Finance Co. That order is awaiting shareholder approval, which is expected to go through sometime this month.
That compares with 1,064 orders for Boeing's competing 737 MAX and more than 1,440 for Airbus' NEO family, although only a small fraction of those orders is for the smaller models that compete directly with the CSeries.
Arcamone, noting it already has 14 customers, was adamant that Bombardier would meet its target of 300 firm orders and at least 20 customers by mid-2014, when the jet enters service.
Bombardier's slowly growing order book has raised concerns that the company does not have the appetite to lure customers with deep discounts, as Boeing and Airbus do, or provide financing offers and walk-away rights.
"We've had some customers that we did offer launch pricing as our competition's done, which is the industry norm. It makes economic sense," said Arcamone.
The CSeries claims a 15 percent cash operating cost advantage and 20 percent fuel burn advantage over the Boeing and Airbus models. Its airframe is lighter.
The plane uses conventional batteries rather than the lithium ion batteries that have caused troubles for Boeing's Dreamliner plane. "We are very glad about that decision," Arcamone said.
Airbus and Boeing have moved to defend their strong market shares by adding fuel-saving engines similar to those on the CSeries to their own best-selling models.
That is a draw for airlines preferring to stick with existing suppliers, whose planes pilots are already certified to fly and where spare parts are plentiful. Numerous repair stations are already qualified to service the competing jets.
Bombardier, which says it expects orders for the CSeries to pick up once the aircraft has made its maiden flight, has an ambitious launch schedule, analysts say, with little room for error.
Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Writing by Susan Taylor, Janet Guttsman and Solarina Ho; Editing by Frank McGurty, Maureen Bavdek, Dale Hudson and Dan Grebler