February 27, 2015 / 5:18 PM / in 3 years

UPDATE 2-Bombardier's CSeries 300 jet takes to the skies; outlook cloudy

(Adds CEO comment, details from news conference)

By Allison Lampert

MIRABEL, Quebec, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Bombardier Inc launched a test flight of its CS300 jet on Friday, the larger version of its new CSeries narrow-body aircraft, in a milestone for the long-delayed program that analysts and investors say may have missed its moment.

The CSeries, Bombardier’s largest jet, with up to 160 seats, takes the company into markets dominated by Boeing Co and Airbus Group NV.

Alain Bellemare, Bombardier’s new chief executive, said the company remains committed to having the plane certified by the end of 2015, but that it could go into service a few weeks into 2016, depending on decisions made by customers. He played down the impact of delays.

“These are long-term programs,” Bellemare said. “Clearly we want to be on schedule, but when you have a one- or two-year delay that doesn’t materially change the volume that you will get in the marketplace.”

Bellemare took the helm earlier this month after Bombardier suspended dividends and laid out plans to raise $2 billion in amid more cost overruns in the CSeries program.

Bombardier has touted the CSeries’ fuel economy as a key selling point, an advantage lessened by lower oil.

“For the airlines to take a step outside the box, it has to be worth something. The fuel efficiency of the CSeries was a big draw, but that has now diminished,” said Ryan Bushell, a portfolio manager with Leon Frazer, which has sold its shares in Bombardier.

But Sebastien Mullot, Bombardier’s CSeries program director, said weaker oil prices lower costs, giving airlines more room to invest in new planes.

“You cannot just make decisions on fleet renewals or fleet acquisition based on the spot price of oil,” he said, predicting a rise in oil prices and saying that airlines need to think long-term.

Wendell Perkins, a senior portfolio manager with Manulife Asset Management, said a slowing global economy may also affect airlines’ purchasing decisions.

“The economic weakness is a concern, particularly given much of the interest in the CSeries has come from outside of the U.S. market,” he said. “While we still believe the CSeries will be launched by late 2015, or early 2016, the opportunity to reshape the market has probably been lost.”

Bombardier is one of the most shorted stocks on the Toronto Stock Exchange and last week its shares hit a five-year low. Shares were down 1.5 percent at C$2.57 on Friday. (Writing and additional reporting by Euan Rocha, John Tilak and Allison Martell in Toronto; editing by Amran Abocar and Matthew Lewis)

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