By Solarina Ho, Alwyn Scott and Tim Hepher
MIRABEL, Quebec, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Bombardier Inc successfully flew its CSeries jetliner for the first time on Monday, kicking off a renewed effort to sell the all-new narrow-body plane, but raising questions about its development cost.
The first flight of the CS100, a key milestone in creating the first new commercial jet of its size in decades, also revealed at least one technical problem.
At a press conference, Bombardier said an alert had gone off for one of the subsystems during the flight, without providing details. The "advisory message," however, did not affect the airplane and would not have required the pilot to land even if the plane had commercial passengers aboard, chief test pilot Chuck Ellis said.
Bombardier Commercial Aircraft President Michele Arcamone clouded the cost estimate for the program by saying at the press conference that the total was about $3.9 billion, about $500 million more than the official estimate.
After the press conference he told reporters that $3.4 billion remained the official estimate, and that estimates fluctuate due to suppliers, materials and other factors.
Later Marc Duchesne, public affairs director at Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, said the higher total mentioned by Arcamone during the press conference included $500 million in interest expense, required under International Financial Reporting System accounting rules, and was not due to program cost increases.
Steve Hansen, an analyst with Raymond James in Vancouver, British Columbia, said the higher cost estimate did not alter his neutral view on Bombardier stock, which closed down 0.6 percent at C$4.96 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
"Our only residual concern is some of the timeline concerns around the flight testing and the entry-into-service date," he said, speculating that the program could incur some additional costs because of delays.
The new jet faces an ambitious, 12-month deadline to enter commercial service, and tough sales competition from bigger rivals Airbus and Boeing Co.
"There has not been a flight test program yet that's ever gone up there and they haven't found something that needed addressing," Chris Murray, an analyst with PI Financial, said last week.
Murray expects entry into service in 2015.
The white-and-blue CS100 test aircraft gently touched down in clear, chilly weather beside the Bombardier plant in Mirabel, Quebec, at 12:23 p.m. EDT (1623 GMT) before a crowd of employees, media and spectators.
"It flew very well," said Bombardier chief test pilot Ellis. "It's a very, very nice airplane."
About 2-1/2 hours earlier, the plane rose from the tarmac amid cheers and surprisingly little noise from its new engines.
"You could hardly hear the take-off," said Martin Gauss, chief executive officer of Latvian carrier AirBaltic, which has ordered 10 of the larger CS300 planes, which seat 130 passengers.
"This was one of the reasons why we bought it, along with the cost savings from lower fuel burn," he said by telephone after watching the take-off from a spot near the runway.
(FACTBOX on the CSeries )
Montreal-based Bombardier believes big profits await it at the lower end of the market served by Airbus and Boeing - for aircraft seating between 100 and 149 passengers.
Critics say the Canadian design for the medium-haul jet made of light-weight composite materials ignores a trend toward larger aircraft seating 150 people or more as air traffic expands and carriers offer more seats.
Bombardier says its plane will have a 15 percent cash operating cost advantage, 20 percent fuel burn advantage and will be significantly quieter than competing single-aisle jets.
Those proposed improvements prompted Airbus and Boeing to launch in recent years new versions of their older single-aisle models, with similar new, fuel-efficient engines.
Airbus says that when comparing "apples with apples," its upgraded A319neo, part of the A320neo family, will have similar fuel burn and cash costs to the CS300, merely by adopting similar engines. Boeing's competing jet, the 737 MAX, is an update of its best-selling 737 jet, first launched in 1967.
While most industry experts say Bombardier's aircraft built with composites has the edge on fuel performance, Airbus and Boeing sales pitches emphasize "commonality" with the airlines' existing fleet of A320s and 737s - similar design, controls and components that reduce the cost of training and spare parts.
Airbus and Boeing planes also command cheaper financing since they are the industry's most popular models.
The two big plane makers have won more than 3,800 orders for their A320neo and 737 MAX planes. Only a small portion of those orders are for the smaller models that compete directly with the CSeries, suggesting that airlines prefer larger planes.
In contrast, CSeries sales are at 177 firm orders, far short of Bombardier's goal of 300 by the time the plane enters service next year.
Bombardier, which also makes trains, is staking a claim in a niche: the single-aisle, 100- to 149-seat class that is midway between the size of so-called "regional" planes and the larger commercial jetliners of Boeing and Airbus. Bombardier says it can corner half that market over the next 20 years.
Brazil's Embraer SA, the world's No. 3 planemaker, leads in sales of smaller, regional jets.
The CS100 seats 110 in a typical configuration, while the larger CS300 seats 135 and can be modified to seat up to 160.
Bombardier also says the CSeries will be the world's quietest commercial aircraft, to meet evolving regulation.
After witnessing the flight on Monday, Gauss of AirBaltic said he would talk with Bombardier about increasing the airline's order by dipping into its options for 10 additional planes. AirBaltic has not yet decided how many of these options it will exercise.
While the CSeries performance is strong on paper, now that it is flying, airlines and rival plane makers will see if it lives up to its claims of high fuel efficiency, low operating costs and low noise levels.
Competing plane makers also will look closely at the performance of the CSeries systems and components, most notably its PurePower PW1500G turbofan engine made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp.
"The CSeries has already caused an earthquake in the airliner industry," said Michael Boyd, chairman of aviation consulting group Boyd Group International. "That's what caused Boeing and Airbus to redesign their airplanes."
While the first flight was successful, the CSeries' still faces numerous hurdles before it can start carrying commercial passengers in 12 months.
Guy Hachey, president and chief operating officer of Bombardier, said on Monday that nothing from the flight indicated changing the schedule for entry into service.
The first flight was delayed three times over the last nine months and the plane still faces considerable work in testing, certification and setting up production.
Walter Spracklin, an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities, said in a note to clients on Monday that the delay in the first flight and problems with some fuselages had created uncertainty about the size of cost overruns and suggested a trend toward a "development cost of $3.9 billion - barring any major program delay."
But Spracklin said he didn't expect the cost to harm Bombardier's liquidity. It "can be easily funded through the balance sheet," he said.