China’s first regional jet ARJ21 starts commercial operation

China’s first home-built passenger jet entered commercial service on Tuesday in a debut that is already a decade late and underscores problems in Beijing’s bid to become a global aviation player.

Aviation officials, executives and journalists were among the first passengers aboard the ARJ21 regional jet on the Chengdu Airlines flight, which departed the central city of Chengdu after some fanfare featuring ribbon-cutting and a posse of panda mascots. The plane landed in Shanghai just over two hours later, according to state media, which declared the flight a success.

The ARJ21, or Advanced Regional Jet for the 21st century, can carry between 78 and 90 passengers more than 2,200 kilometers, according to its state-owned manufacturer, Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China. Officials originally set a 2006 deadline for the jet’s commercial rollout, but its debut was repeatedly delayed by production setbacks.

The delays, industry experts said, mean that the ARJ21 is entering a more crowded regional-jet market dominated by the likes of Canada’s Bombardier Inc. and Brazil’s Embraer SA. Russia’s Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Co. also makes a regional jet, while Japan’s Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. will pose a challenge with a new 70-to-90 seater.

Chengdu Airlines took delivery of the ARJ21 in November and hoped to start operations in February. Regulatory approval to launch commercial services finally came through Friday. The carrier didn’t offer specific reasons for the delays, though executives say they racked up nearly 140 hours worth of flight trials to make sure the aircraft is safe and ready.

“There have been various minor problems. This is unavoidable for all aircraft types and they have been dealt with properly,” the government news agency, Xinhua, quoted Chengdu Airlines Deputy General Manager Shuai Zhiyong as saying Tuesday. “Currently, the aircraft is safe.”

A Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac) ARJ 21-700 regional jet at the Airshow China 2014 in Zhuhai, southern China’s Guangdong province. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Though touted as a homegrown Chinese product, the ARJ21 is influenced by the McDonnell Douglas MD-90 and relies heavily on foreign technology, including avionics from Rockwell Collins Inc., engines from General Electric Co. and a wing designed by Ukraine’s Antonov State Co.

Industry observers say the lengthy approval process reflects cautiousness on the part of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, or CAAC. An earlier Chinese passenger plane, the MA60 twin-turboprop that is based on an old Soviet design, has had tepid sales and a service record marred by a number of accidents at home and abroad.

“China’s goal at this point is to prove to the world that its homegrown aircraft is reliable, competitive and safe,” said Derek Levine, an adjunct professor at the City College of New York and author of The Dragon Takes Flight. “The CAAC’s reputation is on the line.”

The civil aviation administration didn’t respond to a request for comment.

China’s commercial-plane makers have struggled to close the gap with Western aerospace giants, despite significant state largess for a project of national prestige. Analysts estimate the ARJ21 project racked up billions of dollars in costs since development began in 2002. The ARJ21 made its first flight in late 2008, three years behind schedule.

Comac has faced similar problems in its development of a larger jetliner, the C919. A prototype of that 158-to-174 seater was completed in early November, years behind schedule.

Another stumbling block for the ARJ21 is its lack of U.S. and European certification, which means it can’t be exported or flown to major Western markets. Chinese regulators certified the jet in late 2014, allowing it to operate domestically and in certain developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America that recognize the Chinese certification.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration last year ended a shadow evaluation of the Chinese aviation authority’s ability to assess airworthiness—a process industry insiders said was fraught with discord over bureaucratic and technical matters. Comac is developing an ARJ21 variant with design changes that will bring the plane in line with U.S. standards.

Delays in the ARJ21’s development means Comac faces an uphill task in upgrading the plane to compete with Western-made rivals that boast superior fuel efficiency and operational performance.

The news agency, Xinhua, in reporting on the debut voyage cited complaints from the plane’s pilot about noise and vibration in the cabin. “The manufacturer has plans to make improvements and we hope that they can resolve the noise and vibration issues,” Xinhua quoted Chengdu Airlines Capt. Zhang Fangjie as saying.

Still, Comac can be assured of sales to Chinese airlines, whose aircraft purchases are controlled by the government. The company has received more than 300 orders for the ARJ21, the majority placed by Chinese airlines and leasing firms. Chengdu Airlines has another 29 ARJ21s on order and expects to take delivery of its second plane in August.

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