After 13 years, China's home-grown Comac ARJ21 passenger jet enters commercial service

The first of 30 Comac ARJ21 planes delivered to Chengdu Airlines amid nationalistic fervour

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 November, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 2:38am

China's ambition of an indigenous plane took wings on Sunday as its first home-grown passenger jet, the Comac ARJ21, entered commercial service after 13 years in the making.

Configured with 90 economy-class seats, the jet was delivered to its launch customer, Chengdu Airlines, from Comac's Shanghai factory and flown to Chengdu by the airline's general manager Sui Mingguang and deputy manager Zhang Fang in an emotionally charged event bursting with nationalistic rhetoric.

"I am very proud to fly the first Chinese-made jet…It is not in any way inferior to the A320," said Zhang, the captain, upon landing, as reporters unleashed a volley of questions on comparisons with the bigger Airbus product.

Chengdu Airlines, a budget carrier in which Comac has a 48 per cent stake, now faces the task of establishing its maker's claims and proving to the world that China has arrived as a plane maker. ARJ's commercial performance will serve as a test case for the bigger C919, China's answer to Boeing and Airbus in the 150-seat category, that rolled off the assembly line this month.

The ARJ has yet to gain US endorsement, limiting its market to non-Western skies. But Comac has already received more than 300 orders, including from customers in the Republic of Congo, Thailand, Myanmar and Germany.

The plane was certified by the Chinese aviation authority last December after nearly seven years of tests.

Chengdu Airlines, which has a fleet of 20 A320s, said it planned to use the ARJ in less than three months upon completing post-delivery tests. It is likely to be used on prominent routes between Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen first, before being deployed in southwest China.

Chengdu Airlines will receive four more ARJs from Comac next year - the first batch of the 30 planes it ordered. But the airline will also need to find pilots. Since pilot licences are model-specific, there are just 10 pilots licensed to fly ARJ in the country at present. They include four at Chengdu Airlines, all of whom were in the cockpit yesterday.

Converting to an ARJ licence will be a major career gamble for pilots whose pay depends on their flying hours and who are not allowed to operate multiple models at the same time.

Despite that, the response of the airline's nearly 400 A320 pilots had been "more enthusiastic" than expected, said Captain Ti Wei, deputy manager of the airline's flight department.

That is in part because the company is tripling the hourly pay to make up for the shorter flying hours that ARJ will entail.

Ti is one of the first batch of 16 experienced pilots at the airline on course for the training, which takes 50-70 days. "I am looking forward to being able to fly China's own plane," said Ti, who has flown in an ARJ simulator and found it to be "very smooth".

Olga Razzhivina, a director at aircraft appraiser Oriel, said: "As the ARJ enters service, Comac's support ability will be the main test. Being a newcomer to aircraft manufacturing is not easy. Not only the aircraft itself has to be safe, the manufacturer has to convince potential customers of its ability to resolve any technical issues quickly and efficiently."

The ARJ is entering a crowded market currently dominated by Brazil's Embrarer and Canada's Bombardier.