Zhang attributed the delay to Comac's “present level of technological expertise and experience in building commercial aircraft,” an assessment that squares with the long-standing view of industry officials familiar with the program.
But that is not the whole story. For a start, Comac should not be so inexperienced, because it was supposed to have gained knowledge and experience with the ARJ21. The shaky C919 progress bolsters arguments of Chinese industry executives that the country has been moving too fast. In their view, China should have launched a turboprop airliner early last decade, instead of the ARJ21, then a regional jet followed by something like the C919. Compounding the error, the C919 was launched when the ARJ21 was years from certification.
Some people with insight into the C919 program say Comac has a remarkable amount of money and talented engineers that it liberally throws at problems. Others say that not enough trained personnel are available. “For each major system, they have a few relatively good people,” says an industry official. “But many more are needed.” Also, the ARJ21's struggles have drawn away key people.
Perhaps comparable with inexperience and the engineering shortage is the problem of Comac's governmental culture. Delegation is not well practiced in the Chinese state, and Comac managers often prefer to push decisions to their superiors. Groups working on disparate C919 systems are not always interacting as well as they should be with each other. Last year Comac acted on that problem by appointing managers with responsibility across several systems. Avic, an older organization, suffers from the same culture, but Comac was supposed to be more modern. Insiders say it is worse, because the C919 is a national and therefore political project.
The program was late in supplier selection and then very slow in contracting with the suppliers, though they generally moved ahead without agreements. Detail design and fixing the structural layout of the aircraft have been delayed. As late as the first half of this year the center wingbox was changed from composite to conventional aerospace aluminum construction, and Comac had still not chosen a material for the fuselage. The new metal wing box was ready, however.
Some C919 suppliers have been quite late in meeting targets. In some cases that was because they underestimated the time they would take to form required joint companies with divisions of Avic; that held up the systems the joint companies would produce. The program has also been slow to define the system interfaces, which suppliers need to finalize designs.
As a Chinese state agency, Comac has been declaring milestones passed and targets achieved even though not all work has been performed. The preliminary design review of the C919 was declared complete in December 2011 when important issues still remained to be sorted out; some aspects of the approved design were later changed. Suppliers' work has been reassigned.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has been slow at times. For example, it must perform conformity inspections, ensuring that parts and systems meet specifications and match drawings. The FAA will not yet routinely endorse the Chinese certification, so the CAAC must take the time to notify the U.S. safety agency of conformity inspections. Also, Chinese documents need translation for the FAA.
Comac is aiming at completing ARJ21 flight-testing by the end of the year, leaving six months for further certification work. “There seem to be no major problems,” says an industry official. Another, agreeing, says the development schedule has been realistic since last year, when the 2014 target was set. The third volume-production ARJ21 is now under assembly and should be completed by the end of the year. Comac has ordered equipment for 20 production aircraft.