THE FIRST COMAC ARJ21 was meant to be delivered in late 2007, but the latest news from Airshow China revealed that the plane will now not enter service until 2014 at the earliest. The news is a further blow to China’s ailing attempts to enter the civil aircraft market; this inability to maintain a delivery schedule demonstrates a manufacturing regression which robs COMAC of any international confidence in Chinese aircraft. Whilst the ARJ21 was never expected to take the world by storm, it’s larger sibling, the C919, is attempting just that.
The ARJ21, launched in 2002, is a re-engineered MD-80 shrunk to regional jet dimensions with General Electric GE CF34 turbofans and a new wing designed by Antonov. Following the abandonment of the McDonnell Douglas “Trunkliner” project (after Boeing bought the manufacturer), which involved the final assembly of MD80s and MD90s in China after about 30 frames, Shanghai Aviation Industrial Company was left with McDonnell Douglas tooling. Two years later, a “new” regional airliner project was launched, bearing a striking resemblance to the MD design. While Shanghai AVIC successor COMAC officials maintain that the aircraft is a new design, it is widely accepted that the ARJ21 little more than a warmed over DC-9.
Dogged by issues with main structures such as the wing, which failed a critical stress test short of the 150% required by regulating authorities to certify the aircraft for civil use, the ARJ21 EIS date has been pushed back continuously to facilitate major redesigns which have affected the operational capability of the jet.
All eyes are on COMAC’s newer project, the C919. The company claims that the new narrowbody will be China’s answer to the A320neo and B737MAX airliners. Yet once again, eyebrows are raised as COMAC, which has yet to firm the C919 design, maintains an ambitious first flight date in 2014. At last weeks airshow, orders for the C919 topped 350, but with all these originating from Chinese airlines, this questionable success is likely to be the result of governement-induced artificial demand.
COMAC have shown that they still have a lot to learn about building civil airliners. Attempts to pit themselves against Boeing and Airbus’ bread-and-butter products has so far fallen flat. Undoubtedly, through trial and error, these attempts will improve; what remains to be seen is how many more projects COMAC must launch before they begin to get it right.