February 17, 2014
In about three years, according to current plans, Russia and China will each begin delivering a national narrowbody airliner, the Irkut MS-21 and Comac C919, respectively. And 6-8 years later, they may have a jointly developed widebody ready for service.
These plans are maturing as Comac continues to struggle with the C919. Challenged in obtaining FAA endorsement of the C919's intended Chinese certification, the manufacturer is raising the possibility of alternative approval from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
A feasibility study for the widebody will be finished within a few months, after which the program will be ready for launch, Mikhail Pogosyan, president of Irkut owner United Aircraft Corp. (UAC), tells Aviation Week. The target for entry into service is 2023-25. “The long-range widebody aircraft segment is quite interesting for us,” Pogosyan says. “But we should study the market very closely and define clearly the level of technology we need . . . to enter a very competitive market with a product that provides qualitatively new solutions.”
The widebody studies have focused on an aircraft rather like the Airbus A330, say industry executives in China. Comac thinks airlines will need a replacement for that Airbus type next decade. That implies competition with the 787, a seemingly daunting challenge, but the Russo-Chinese aircraft will have access to technology, especially for propulsion, more than a decade newer than that available to the Boeing type when the 787 was launched in 2004.
Pogosyan does not mention a specific Chinese partner for the widebody, but it must be Comac, with which the Russian state company signed an agreement in 2012 to study joint development of a widebody aircraft. The program, targeting domestic and export markets, calls for Chinese involvement from design to after-sales support. The Russian government's Aircraft 2020 program can support technological development, says Pogosyan. UAC estimates airlines globally will need 8,000 airliners in the 20 years to 2033, including 1,000 in China.
The MS-21 and C919 programs are moving ahead in parallel. Pogosyan says Irkut has begun building flight and static test prototypes of the MS-21; the government says the first flight is due at the end of 2015 and deliveries in 2017.
Comac is also aiming for the C919 to make its first flight by the end of 2015, which implies a 2017 entry into service, one year later than first planned, although industry officials close to the program would not be surprised by further slippage, to 2018. Supplier management has been a particular problem. “They need really more experienced program management, and they're poking around and trying to find that experience and bring that in-house,” says Chaker Chahrour, executive vice president of the C919's engine supplier, CFM.