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It is not often you hear about a CEO of a Fortune 500 company staking the future of his or her company, or at least its Aerospace division, on a “large bet”. But that is just what Bombardier (BBDB.TO) CEO Pierre Beaudoin is calling the development of the company’s new plane, the CSeries. Although the airline maker achieved new milestones and took in new orders in 2011, the CSeries’ future is still uncertain. Will this $3.5 billion investment pay off?

Before the company can start recouping its money, the CSeries has to be built. In 2012, the plane is scheduled to complete several milestones and its maiden flight. The first deliveries of the plane should be in 2013.

CEO Pierre Beaudoin says that up to a six-month delay in delivery would be tolerable. He points to the fact that this piece of machinery will be composed of about 100,000 parts. Indeed, the sourcing of an engine from Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies (UTX - Free United Tech Stock Report), and fuselage (the main body) from China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation shows that the CSeries project is a complex and far-reaching undertaking.

Competition comes from giant airplane producers Airbus and Boeing (BA - Free Boeing Stock Report), as well as the leader in smaller planes Embraer (ERJ). Right now, Embraer’s E-Jet is the main competition. Boeing has 737 models that are comparable, and Airbus is working on the A320neo (with a new engine option). The story here is that rather than create new planes from scratch like the CSeries, all three of these companies opted, instead, to retool their planes’ engines to compete with the CSeries’ initial cost advantage.

The CSeries is the only totally new plane planned that is specifically designed for the 110 to 149 passenger niche. While the retooled planes from competitors are likely to cut into the CSeries’ share of the pie if they can compete with Bombardier’s plane on a cost basis (Airlines would rather stick to one of the bigger providers rather than mix and match their fleets), newness may be the deciding factor for airlines that like what is well appointed.

The new design shows in the CSeries’ ambience. Anyone who has ever taken a ride on Bombardier’s AirTrain at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport knows something about the company’s ideas of comfort. The train is quieter and larger, and offers a much different experience than the squeaking and packed subway trains travelers ride on before connecting to the AirTrain. Similarly, Bombardier is attempting to rethink the flying experience with the CSeries. Larger windows will provide more natural light in the cabin. The engine is designed to be quieter.

As airlines try to differentiate themselves, Bombardier’s newly designed CSeries may be attractive to certain airline brands. Airlines emanating from Asia that market comfort, such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates, may be interested in this new piece of machinery. Also, Bombardier’s Transportation segment seems to have already built up some goodwill in luxury-oriented and growing China.

Sales were shaky at first, but the company seems to have enough orders to make the project viable. Right now, the company has 300 firm orders and options from mostly European airlines (the biggest and first of all orders is from Lufthansa), but also an American and an Asian one.  The backlog leaves the company with some time for executions and sales.

Hopefully for Bombardier, the development of the CSeries will progress without delay, and this small-airplane company will be able to market the plane’s attributes to airliners. At stake is $5 billion to $8 billion of potential revenue a year for Bombardier after delivery in 2013. That’s not bad so far, but the CSeries’ future is still up in the air.

At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.