A year after Bombardier's CSeries entered service, the aircraft's two operators – Swiss and Air Baltic – report that the clean-sheet twinjet's introduction has gone more smoothly than they expected.
Swiss became the CSeries programme's launch operator when it started revenue flights with the CS100 on 15 July 2016. The Lufthansa Group carrier initially ordered 30 CS100 jets, but subsequently converted 20 orders to the larger CS300. Flight Fleets Analyzer shows that today Swiss has eight CS100s and one CS300, configured with 125 and 145 seats respectively.
Air Baltic began regular passenger flights with its first CS300 in December 2016. The Latvian carrier now has five CS300s, and has another 15 on order for delivery through 2019 – and chief executive Martin Gauss has repeatedly said the airline is evaluating further orders for the Pratt & Whitney PW1500G geared turbofan-powered aircraft.
Swiss's deputy CSeries fleet chief, Sven Thaler – a pilot who converted to the type in March from the BAE Systems Avro RJ100 regional jet – tells FlightGlobal the airline was prepared for the aircraft's introduction to bring up technical issues. "As launch operator, you have to expect this, you have to plan for it, that's logical," he says. But he adds: "It went better than expected. There are no topics that restrict us in any way."
Air Baltic operations chief Martin Sedlacky uses similar terms to describe the aircraft's introduction: "To be honest, it went surprisingly well." With dispatch reliability between 99.3% and 99.4%, the airline's initial four CS300s performed at a similar level to its Bombardier Q400 turboprops, he says, adding: "That's not bad, because the Q400 is an established programme."
The carrier's Boeing 737 Classics – which will be replaced by CS300s – operate at 99.8% dispatch reliability, Sedlacky says. But he argues that this higher level of performance is partly a result of the 737's long-established, ubiquitous presence. "If you fly to Paris and something happens with a 737, you have tonnes of technicians who can fix it. If you fly state-of-the-art [equipment] and something happens with the avionics on this aircraft, there are not so many people in every corner of Europe."
Availability of trained staff and ground equipment has been a key factor in selecting suitable routes for the CSeries, he acknowledges. "You need to really think wisely, especially in the beginning. What's your support network? Are technicians flying on board the aircraft or not?"
He expects dispatch reliability to further improve as more aircraft join the fleet. Air Baltic is scheduled to have eight CS300s by year-end, and it expects to receive another eight in 2018. "I am not targeting in the first two years to be better than Boeing. I think that is unachievable… but if I get to 99.5% dispatch reliability, I would be happy."
The PW1500G geared turbofan has not been affected by the start-up and bearing problems of the PW1100G variant for the Airbus A320neo, because the CSeries powerplant has a different wing-mounting fixture that results in less strain on the rotor assembly. But – as with its A320neo sibling – premature combustor degradation has been an issue.
One result is that Air Baltic and Swiss each replaced two engines on their CSeries fleets before June. The two airlines conducted borescope inspections, as recommended, before the engine reached 2,000 flight hours: an activity which must be repeated at 200h intervals after that point.
Bombardier's vice-president for the CSeries programme, Rob Dewar, tells FlightGlobal that with its initial CS100 Swiss was able to operate the engines to around 2,400h, but then replaced them in May. The carrier's next engine changes have been scheduled over the coming months, says Swiss. Air Baltic, meanwhile, replaced two engines on its fleet before June.
P&W acknowledges that "engine maintenance has been in line with expectations, which anticipated that some issues would be uncovered". It notes: "In order to ensure that the dispatch reliability of the engine remains high, Pratt & Whitney has added a combustor panel inspection to its scheduled maintenance programme."
The manufacturer adds: "We do expect that the maintenance requirements of the engine will both reduce and simplify as the fleet matures and we fully deploy our 'EngineWise' prognostic health-monitoring capabilities."
Dewar says an updated combustor liner has been developed, which has a limit of 6,000-8,000h, and that P&W is working on a third generation – to be rolled out in 2018 – which will raise the limit to 20,000h in benign environments.
Sedlacky credits Bombardier and P&W with having been been swift in providing support for the engine issues. However, he says Air Baltic will not invest in its own spare engines until the problems – which Sedlacky describes as "design issues" – have been resolved. He notes improvements are scheduled to be rolled out in mid-2018, but adds: "I would be less optimistic. I would say it takes two years to get the engine to the shape where I say: 'OK, that's the asset that I would order.'"
P&W insists that "the initial entry into service of the PW1500G engine has been very good". The 14 in-service CSeries jets have accumulated a total of more than 28,000 engine hours, and the manufacturer says the powerplant has reached a dispatch reliability of 99.9%.
Swiss and Air Baltic both say they were surprised to find that CSeries fuel consumption was lower than had been forecast. "I honestly didn't expect fuel burn would not only be better than the agreement [with Bombardier], but also than the [aircraft's] marketing material," says Sedlacky. "I am a pretty sceptical guy; I was an ex-consultant… But actually the fuel burn is lower than the marketing material by about 1%."
Dewar says it is "more significant than 1%", and that the aircraft is performing ahead of targets throughout the operating range, rather than on individual routes or at certain speeds. But he declined to provide further detail, with Bombardier intending to update its performance specifications later this year.
Swiss admits it had issues with the cabin management system – specifically the safety video demonstration and public address system – and problems with starting up onboard systems. Thaler says crew members had to switch off and reboot equipment, and Dewar acknowledges that Bombardier delivered software updates to rectify problems. In Thaler's view, however, the cabin issues represent "comfort items", rather than significant negative issues.
Initially, Swiss deployed its CS100s for about six sectors a day, with the aircraft returning to its Zurich base overnight. But now the aircraft are used for up to nine flights a day. Average daily utilisation across the CSeries fleet – for both Swiss and Air Baltic – is around 14h, says Dewar. He points out that Air Baltic's flight time averages around 3h because of Latvia's location, while Swiss's flights tend to average around 1h 15min.
Swiss says it has no intention of adding new destinations to its network with the CSeries. But Thaler says the aircraft's range – 1,970nm (3,650km) for the CS100 – makes the type an "all-rounder" that can operate the routes of both the Avro and the airline's Airbus A320-family fleet.
In Geneva, Swiss decided to entirely replace a locally-based A320-family fleet with the CSeries, in a bid to raise the profitability of operations in Switzerland's second city. The airline's market share there has been reduced to around 20%, largely as a result of competition from EasyJet, Swiss chief executive Thomas Kluhr told FlightGlobal in 2016.
Kluhr said the carrier had considered withdrawing from Geneva for the city to be served by Lufthansa Group's budget unit Eurowings, but he favoured a Swiss presence there in order to avoid the flag carrier becoming "Zurich Air Lines".
Thaler says Swiss will station seven CS300s in Geneva and, for a route to London City airport, a CS100. The baseline model was certificated in April for the steep approach to the UK capital's downtown gateway, and Swiss intends to start serving London City during the third quarter of this year. In addition to installing a software package required for the UK airport, Thaler says Swiss's CSeries jets will receive a software update to increase landing capability in low visibility from CAT II to CAT III A in the autumn.
Air Baltic, for its part, ordered the CS300 as a 737 replacement. But Gauss revealed during the Paris air show in June that the airline was considering a follow-up order for a mix of CS100s and CS300s to replace its Q400 twin-turboprops.
For Air Baltic, the CSeries' range represents an opportunity to expand its network to destinations that could not be served with the 737. The Riga-based carrier will start flights to Abu Dhabi in October. The airline previously unveiled a service to the Gulf state in 2013, which was to be operated with A319s. But the economics did not meet the airline's expectations.
Gauss has said that leisure routes to Spain's Canary Islands would become feasible, and that Air Baltic might expand its network to more distant destinations in Russia with the CS300.
By the end of June, the in-service fleet had undergone a total of 11 A-checks, Dewar says. The maintenance event, scheduled after 850 flight hours, is designed to be accomplished within an 8h shift. Dewar says the initial A-check took 5h, but this has since been reduced to less than 3h. "There have been no findings to date on any of the A-checks, outside of damage on one cargo panel due to impact from baggage [handling]," he notes.
Swiss's head of maintenance Stephan Regli thinks it is too early to judge how maintenance of the CSeries compares with other aircraft, because A-checks represent "no great challenge". Nevertheless, he says technicians have predominantly voiced positive feedback and say that the aircraft is easy to maintain.
Owing to automated transfer of data from aircraft’s systems, Swiss has much more technical information on the CSeries than on earlier types in its fleet. Regli adds: "This is not being optimally analysed yet. We are still on a learning curve and need more empirical data. But we can say the fault notifications are very accurate and support our maintenance operations well."
C-checks are scheduled after 8,500h – typically three-and-a-half years of operation. However, based on in-service experience, Bombardier intends to increase the intervals for A-checks to 1,000h, and for C-checks to 10,000h. Dewar says: "It looks like we can do it sometime toward the end of 2019."
In terms of pilot training, Air Baltic senior vice-president of flight operations Pauls Calitis reports that there was initially "a lot of apprehension" among the airline's flightcrew as regards transitioning from the 737 or Q400 to the CSeries: "We were expecting to have some difficulties… going from a less-automated to a highly-automated aircraft."
However, Calitis says the move turned out not to be as challenging as expected, and the aircraft has become very popular among the airline's pilots. "We've really not had any issues in terms of transitioning people. And actually the success rate is higher than on different training that we have done previously," he says.
In Thaler's view, the CSeries is easy to fly, and the aircraft's systems and handling are intuitive and straightforward to understand. He says the pilots receive a range of automated information through the cockpit systems: "You have the best support that you can expect from the aircraft. The aircraft will tell when there is something going in a different way [than] you like it to be.
"It is not like that we are operating a machine or that a computer is flying us. It's like an interaction, rather like a third crew member. The aircraft posts to us certain messages… and expects a reply."
Thaler says the cockpit interface is designed in a way that leaves the pilots in charge and does not demand the crew to work through checklists or instructions in a particular, predefined sequence. Pilots can opt to disregard checklists that are being suggested by the system, and instead decide on an alternative action if they consider it more appropriate.
"That's really a bit different to checklists on other aircraft… The pilot is always at the centre of the decision-making process," says Thaler. "[The pilot] must receive from the system the information that he needs, he must be ideally supported. But the decision is ultimately taken by the pilot. However, the aircraft warns me if I exceed a limit."
Calitis sums up his experience with Bombardier's first fly-by-wire aircraft without a traditional control column thus: "Having come from conventional controls and going to the sidestick, the sidestick flying on this aircraft is just so easy and intuitive… It just flies like an aeroplane. It is not a computer you are flying."
Source: Cirium Dashboard