The CAAC and the FAA are using the ARJ21 program as an exercise through which the Chinese authority will learn the ropes of certifying a commercial jet aircraft with Western agencies. Once the process is complete, CAAC certifications will be recognized by the FAA and will therefore be widely accepted in Western markets.
Full-scale development of the ARJ21 was approved in 2002 with the objective of putting the aircraft into service in 2006—and learning how to develop a commercial aircraft to Western standards. Managers soon realized that 2006 was too ambitious, and within weeks the target was slipped to 2007, with a first flight in 2005. When 2007 came around, the ARJ21 was due to go into service in 2009, but it did not fly until 2008, at which time the first delivery was pushed back until 2010. More delays followed. Last year, the target was September or October 2012, but early this year it was bumped to June 2013.
There may have been two bumps since then, as a fourth program official says the latest advice to Catic, the state enterprise responsible for international sales, is that late 2013 is the target. It seems that Catic has been told of one delay but not a second, to 2014.
As a Chinese state organization, Comac is not in the habit of announcing program delays, as a Western manufacturer would do. It also has good reason not to be quick in letting even its suppliers know that there has been another schedule slip, says an industry official.
“If suppliers think that they have more time, they won’t try so hard,” says that official. ARJ21 suppliers include Comac shareholder Avic (which builds the airframe), General Electric (CF34-10A engines), Honeywell (flight controls), Parker Aerospace (fuel system), Rockwell Collins (avionics) and Liebherr-Aerospace Lindenberg GmbH (landing gear). All are waiting to book volume-production revenue from their development investment.
Comac Chairman Jin Zhuanglong has criticized Catic for failing to secure many—perhaps any—dependable orders for ARJ21s from foreign customers. Catic’s response is that Comac, having no record as a supplier of serviceable airliners, needs to certify the ARJ21 first. Operations by the Comac-owned first customer, Chengdu Airlines, should help, too.
Some in the industry are concerned that Comac is losing interest in volume production of the ARJ21 and will be satisfied if it just achieves certification, supporting the C919. But the company has ordered parts for at least 13 aircraft, of which only the first four are prototypes not intended for airline service. It is therefore committed to building at least nine production aircraft.
The original ARJ21 program envisaged building 340 aircraft for sale to Chinese airlines. There were to be exports, too, but partners put much more faith in the domestic sales, which the Chinese government could force.
In assessing whether to use the ARJ21 as the basis for the New Regional Aircraft, a key issue is likely to be the size of the new model and the current airliner’s body cross-section, which accepts five-abreast economy seating and therefore could be stretched to fit 150 seats in two classes. For that reason, the ARJ21 more likely would be the basis for an aircraft that would compete against the Bombardier CSeries or the Sukhoi Superjet 100 than for a model with fewer than 100 seats.
Comac has said the cross-section, unusually wide for ARJ21’s 90 single-class seats (or 78 in two classes), was chosen for passenger comfort. But the real reason is that the ARJ21 is generally based on the five-abreast McDonnell Douglas MD-82, built at the same Shanghai factory in the 1980s and 1990s. The ARJ21 is not an exact copy, however.