The maiden flight of China’s first domestic passenger jet, the Comac C919, will be delayed by at least a year, threatening China’s ambitions to challenge global aerospace manufacturers Airbus and Boeing.
The narrow-body plane, manufactured by the Comercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), is positioned to compete with Airbus’s popular A320 and Boeing’s 737.
The plane, designed to carry between 156 and 168 passengers, was scheduled to perform its maiden flight by the end of 2015. According to sources familiar with the project, that date has recently been postponed by at least a year, due to delays in the assembly process.
"Comac is proceeding extremely cautiously with the first aircraft,” an unnamned source told Reuters. “It is deliberately checking everything ... to ensure that there are no safety issues."
As a result, first customers will likely receive their deliveries with a two year delay, in 2020 instead of previously planned 2018.
Such a delay could compromise the aircraft’s ability to compete in the international market as the current market leaders, Boeing and Airbus, would by then introduce new enhanced products. Both, Boeing 737s as well as Airbus A320s, are set to receive a major engine upgrade that would push them a level above Comac C919.
The narrow-body market, which China wants to enter, makes up about a half of the global aircraft fleet. Comac has so far received 450 orders, mainly from Chinese airlines and leasing firms.
China believes developing a fully-fledged aerospace industry is key to its economic growth and the development of C919 and associated technological know-how has been a cornerstone of that plan.
While Comac executives and Chinese government officials are concerned about the impact of the delays on the image of the C919 and the country, safety is a priority, said sources.
"Any delay is unfortunate, but it is far more important to have an aircraft that is safe and reliable,” the source told Reuters. “China is developing the C919 with long-term goals in mind, and it must be patient and careful.”
The prototype aircraft is currently in a sub-assembly facility in Shanghai awaiting its tail and vertical and horizontal stabilisers to be fixed. Afterwards, the aircraft will be moved to the final assembly plant to receive its two engines produced jointly by General Electric’s and Snecma.
The plane will be then equipped with systems by Honeywell, United Technologies, Rockwell Collins and Parker Aerospace.
A series of ground tests will follow that could take several months to be completed.
The plane’s fuselage, wings and tail are being manufactured locally by subsidiaries of AVIC, China’s state-owned aerospace conglomerate.
While Chinese designers and engineers conceived and developed the C919, Comac has hired several former employees of American and European aerospace companies to help with the programme.
Comac will be hoping to learn from its much-delayed 100-seat ARJ-21 jet, which received its type certification in December, six years after its first flight and more than 12 years after it was conceived.