Take-off for C919 project delayed

Rivals Boeing and Airbus get more time to launch their upgraded single-aisle aircraft first

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 3:04am

The mainland's largest domestically produced aircraft may not enter service until early next decade, a delay that gives dominant rivals Boeing and Airbus time to launch their upgraded single-aisle planes first.

The Comac C919, which will compete with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 family of aircraft, was scheduled for its first flight next year, but that has now been delayed until 2015, local media have reported.

Officials from Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) said there was a new timeline, but declined to give details. Sources from the state-owned firm and its Western suppliers of systems said the mainland company was still getting to grips with the complex project.

[The mainland] wants to learn how to build a viable and safe aircraft

The mainland is keen to develop a successful commercial aircraft to prove it can match the United States and Europe. But it has been held back by inexperience, a shortage of local aerospace design and engineering talent and a lack of home-grown companies with the technology to help drive the project.

Industry executives and Comac's competitors expect the company to eventually threaten the Airbus-Boeing duopoly, with the C919 competing in the 150- to 200-seat single-aisle aircraft category that accounts for 64 per cent of global fleets.

But a delay means the C919 will arrive several years after the upgraded and re-engined A320neo and Boeing 737 Max enter the market.

"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," said a person at a Western supplier who meets senior Comac officials regularly.

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. "We want the best products and technologies from our suppliers, and that has caused some delay."

Comac has received commitments to buy 380 of the C919 aircraft, mostly from mainland airlines and leasing companies backed by banks such as Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Bank of Communications.

The company was proceeding cautiously in the development stage so the C919 could meet rigorous international testing and certification standards, said people familiar with Comac's strategy.

Comac 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 aircraft is now scheduled to be delivered late next year.