Chinese Aerospace Still Behind in Fulfilling Big Ambitions

Comac C919

Comac C919

Last week’s Airshow China in Zhuhai left visitors with little doubt about the scope of China’s ambitions in the aerospace sector. In addition to the three new airliners under development by the country’s state-controlled airframers—the C919 narrowbody, and ARJ21 and MA700 regional airliners—multiple programs for new general aviation aircraft and helicopters have gotten underway. China’s leading OEM, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), projected a high profile at the show, but once again seemed unwilling to provide clear updates on the timelines for several of its delayed programs.

“China wants to re-create Airbus’s success against Boeing,” commented Jean-Luc Doublet, vice president of the Chinese subsidiary of aerospace group Safran. It serves as a major partner in the C919 (providing engines and electrical power), which carries a shipset value of approximately $14 million.

Nonetheless, the C919 has fallen some two years behind schedule, and Comac now projects a first flight towards the end of 2015. But the programs major partners have indicated that a more realistic target would be the first half of 2016, followed by service entry in 2018. “It is normal for there to be delays but we are confident,” said Jacques Salvat, director of customer support in China for Zodiac Aerospace. The French manufacturer provides systems such as oxygen and water distribution. According to Comac, it intends to achieve a production rate of between 50 to 150 aircraft per year for the C919, which it views as a rival to Boeing’s new 737 Max and the Airbus A320neo.

One of the key questions for the C919 centers on how it will achieve certification. Effectively, the Chinese have used the smaller ARJ21 to prepare the path, but that program is already running six years late. Comac still insists it can achieve initial certification of the regional jet by the end of 2014 and achieve service entry with China’s Chengdu Airlines early in 2015. “The C919 is the airplane for [Comac] to conquer the Chinese market [now dominated by Western-built airliners], and the ARJ21 is the aircraft being used to prepare for this conquest,” commented Nicolas Bonleux, sales director with Liebherr Aerospace, which serves as a supplier to both programs.

In the twin turboprop sector, the 90-seat MA700—a larger derivative of the existing MA600 modelalso is running late. Its developers now project service entry no earlier than 2019, some two years later than the initial 2017 target. Nonetheless, Western companies carry a vested interest in that program too. During Airshow China, X’ian Aircraft Industrial Corporation (part of the Avic group) gave Safran subsidiary Labinal Power Systems a contract to provide the MA700’s main and auxiliary electrical generation systems. Also at the show, Safran and Avic announced the creation of a 50:50 joint venture to develop new turboprop technology.

In Zhuhai, the Chinese also shed some light on a planned widebody airliner development, provisionally dubbed the C929. Comac would develop the airplane through a joint venture with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC). Early specifications include a maximum takeoff weight of between 250 and 300 metric tons (550,000 to 660,000 pounds) and plans call for three versions carrying between 280 and 350 passengers with a range of up to 6,500 nm. Approximately 50 percent of the airframe would consists of composite materials.

“The discussions and assessments of the business case, industrial potential, technology transfer, et cetera, are ongoing at this point,” UAC chief executive Mikhail Pogosyan told journalists during Airshow China, but how the partners would structure the joint venture remains a big question. “I don’t think the Russia-China alliance will work in the long run,” said an executive with a Western supplier, speaking on condition of anonymity. In his view, the Russian industry cannot offer its prospective partner enough in the way of production efficiency. Nonetheless, in theory, the partners would base the joint venture in China, leaving UAC responsible for the design and production of the wings and Comac and Avic the fuselage in Shanghai, where the C919 now undergoes assembly.

A Western company would provide the C929’s 80,000-pound-thrust engines. During a presentation in Zhuhai, Comac indicated that it can produce approximately 1,000 C929s and achieve a first flight in 2021 ahead of certification in 2025.


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