MIRABEL, Canada (AFP) – Bombardier's new CS100 medium range jetliner took to the skies on its maiden flight on Monday, marking the Canadian manufacturer's entry into airspace dominated by Airbus and Boeing.
Hundreds of employees and guests cheered as the 100-125 seat passenger jet departed from Mirabel airport in the northwest corner of Montreal for a test flight just before 10 a.m. local time (1400 GMT) under a bright blue sky.
"It's the largest aircraft ever conceived and assembled in Canada," Bombardier engineer Stephane Poitras told AFP. "We're witnessing history today."
For the first time, Bombardier will now be competing directly with the smallest airliners from aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing, a move which Poitras described as a "huge leap" for the company based in Montreal.
Bombardier has already secured 177 firm orders for the narrow-body twin-engine aircraft, which consumes 20 percent less fuel than its competitors, and is scheduled to start deliveries at the end of 2014.
Bombardier chief executive Pierre Beaudoin said he hopes to boost that sales figure to 300 over the coming months.
Bombardier, which previously focused on building regional jets and trains, spent $3.5 billion and 10 years to develop the CS100 and its slightly larger sibling, the CS300, which seats up to 160 passengers and is expected to launch in early 2014.
It first announced the venture in 2004 but shelved its plans two years later when demand for medium-range aircrafts plummeted, and then revived them in 2007 when the market started to rebound.
Sales of the CSeries aircraft should generate between $5 billion and $8 billion in annual revenues for the company, as demand for transcontinental jets is forecast to skyrocket, said Beaudoin.
"That's a huge increase for our company when you consider that our annual revenues average $20 billion," he said.
Indeed Bombardier is taking a huge gamble by going head-to-head with the European and American leaders in aerospace, in their most profitable space.
The CSeries jetliners will likely compete with the Boeing 737, Airbus A318 and A319, and Embraer 195.
But Boeing and Airbus appear unfazed by this new entrant, offering instead congratulations to Bombardier on its CS100's first flight. "Such 'firsts' are great for everyone who loves aviation," Airbus said in a Twitter message.
Just getting to this point has not been easy for Bombardier. The company had to push back its CS100 launch, originally set for the end of 2012, several times.
Beaudoin is confident that Bombardier can not only break in to the market for medium-range jetliners, but brazenly push its way into the pole position.
He said airlines are forecast to order approximately 7,000 jetliners capable of seating up to 150 passengers as they upgrade and expand their aging fleets over the next two decades.
Bombardier, he said, hopes to secure a whopping 3,500 of those orders.
Korean Air, Gulf Air, Air Baltic and Atlas Jet are among the first to place orders with Bombardier.
Many airlines are struggling with soaring fuel costs. Bombardier was able to cut fuel consumption by using composite materials instead of aluminium for the wings.
Nico Buchholz, vice president of Lufthansa, who was on hand for the test flight, commented that the CSeries aircraft's range and fuel efficiency are "nicely adapted for the European market."
For Robert Deluze, head of Canada's Porter Airlines, the CS100's quieter Pratt and Whitney engines are key to his airline's future expansion.
Porter currently flies twin turboprop aircraft out of the downtown Toronto island airport, but its plans to expand and use slightly larger aircraft with jet engines has riled nearby waterfront condo dwellers.
He needed to find a quieter jet that wouldn't bother the neighbours and, he said, the CS100 is "clearly a whisper jet."