Comac C919 aircraft represents China's ambition to break the Airbus-Boeing dominance in aerospace

China's 'Airbus' launch unlikely this decade

China’s endeavour to develop and manufacture aircraft of the same league as Boeing and Airbus is being delayed, with the C919 plane most probably not being launched until the next decade.

Officials of The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) hinted the company’s C919 project’s schedule had been shifted. However, the officials refused to provide further details.

The Comac C919, which has ambitions to compete with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 family of aircraft, was scheduled for its first flight next year. With the schedule change, the maiden flight is now being delayed until at least 2015, pushing the first commercial delivery to around 2017 or 2018.

According to sources familiar with the situation of the state-owned firm, Comac’s Western system suppliers said the Chinese company is still getting to grips with such a complex project.

China’s ambition to develop a fully-fledged commercial aircraft is part of the country’s endeavour to match the USA and Europe and transform itself into a high-tech and aerospace superpower.

However, lack of skilled workforce and insufficient experience with aerospace design, as well as the absence of domestic technological companies, are hindering the venture.

China’s aerospace executives hope Comac’s C919 aircraft could eventually break the duopoly of Airbus and Boeing in the 150 to 200 seater single-aisle aircraft category.

However, the current revelations suggest the C919 will arrive to the market later than expected, giving both, Airbus and Boeing, plenty of time to finish the next generation of their respective aircraft. In practice, the C919 might have a lower price-tag, nevertheless, the upgraded A320neo and Boeing 737 Max with improved new engines would most probably offer much better fuel efficiency and lower maintenance cost.

"The C919 will not be as technologically advanced as the A320 and 737, but that's not China's aim for now. It wants to learn how to build a viable and safe aircraft, and become more competitive in the long-term. It's learning from what Airbus did to Boeing in the 1970s," said an unnamed source working for one of Comac’s Western suppliers who is familiar with the situation.

Luo Ronghuai, a vice-president at Comac, said the C919 programme could suffer "setbacks", and noted that experienced companies including Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier all delayed the first flight of their recent jets.

"We have an internal plan, but it is too early to announce it," Luo said at the Aviation Expo show in Beijing last week, when asked about the timeline and the reasons for the delays. "We want the best products and technologies from our suppliers, and that has caused some delay. We've used new technologies. As such, it's hard to say whether there will be any setbacks."

So far, mostly Chinese companies have entered the waiting list, committing to purchasing altogether 380 C919 planes.

It was suggested Comac is deliberately proceeding cautiously in the development stage so the C919 can meet rigorous international testing and certification standards.

Among the company’s Western suppliers are engine manufacturer CFM (a joint venture between GE Aviation and French firm Snecma), Honeywell, United Technologies’ subsidiary Goodrich, Rockwell Collins, Liebherr, Zodiac Aerospace, Meggitt, Eaton and Parker Aerospace.

The components send from the West are being integrated on to a C919 frame in China, where subsequent ground-based testing is carried out to identify any abnormalities early in the development phase. After the completion of the testing phase, the timeline for the plane to enter the service will be refined.

Comac has hired dozens of young Chinese aerospace engineering graduates - many of whom attended US or European universities - and is trying to attract Western aerospace professionals, according to sourced familiariar with the firm's strategy.

"Comac simply doesn't have the expertise or the number of engineers and designers that Boeing or Airbus have. It is really trying to overcome that challenge," said an executive of one of the suppliers who has visited Comac's Shanghai offices.

The company is also learning from the problems faced by its ARJ-21 regional jet programme. The first ARJ-21 was rolled out in December 2007 and had its first flight a year later, but the certification process has taken more than five years. The plane is now scheduled to be delivered late next year.

Officials from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are conducting a parallel certification of the ARJ-21, and that internationally recognised certification will go a long way towards helping the aircraft be accepted more widely and sold to more airlines globally.

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