CHINA SPECIAL: ARJ21 update

Shanghai
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The Comac ARJ21 regional jet is set to take to the skies above Zhuhai this month as it makes its air show flight debut.

Aircraft 104, one of the four in the test fleet, will take part in the flight display, even as sources say that setbacks have resulted in the first delivery of the aircraft, initially scheduled for early 2011, being delayed until at least the third quarter of 2011. Sources within Comac say unresolved design issues have led to the slippage.

Chengdu Airlines is expected to be the launch operator of the 90-seat aircraft.

Comac declines to comment on its commercial aircraft programmes, but sources close to the aircraft manufacturer say deliveries could take place only in late 2011.


The ARJ21 regional jet is expected to fly this month at the Zhuhai air show. Picture: Rex Features 
CERTIFICATION
The aircraft has yet to be certificated by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the sources say Comac aims to achieve this later in 2011.

A shadow certification programme by the US Federal Aviation Administration is ongoing, as US authorities assess the CAAC's ability to technically assess the aircraft. Comac can then apply for FAR 25 certification if the CAAC passes this shadow programme.

In the meantime, GE Aviation delivered the first two CF34-10A production engines to the ARJ21 programme in October. This follows FAR 33 certification for the powerplant obtained from US regulators in late July.

"There will be plenty of time for Comac to fold it into the production system," says GE Aviation's vice-president and general manager for commercial aircraft programmes Roger Seager.

Endurance testing of the engine is continuing, as GE supports the ARJ21 in its flight-testing programme. "The programme has gone remarkably successfully, given that we already have a lot of experience with this engine," says Seager. GE's CF34-10A is a derivative of the CF34-10E, which is used on Embraer 190 regional jets.

The ARJ21, which had its first flight in November 2008, has flown about 600h so far.

Most of the flight testing has taken place in Xian, and the programme completed high temperature, humidity and static load tests earlier this year.

Besides launch operator Chengdu Airlines, Chinese carriers Henan Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Joy Air and Shanghai Airlines have also reportedly placed orders, even though some of these are letters of intent. Lao Airlines, with an order for two ARJ21s, is set to be the regional jet's first foreign operator.

GE Commercial Aviation Services placed a firm order for five ARJ21s and 20 options at the last Zhuhai air show in 2008.

Indonesian mining firm Merukh Enterprises has also reportedly signed a tentative agreement to export ARJ21s and other Chinese-made aircraft to Indonesia.

GOVERNMENT INITIATIVE
In total, Comac has reportedly gained more than 200 orders for the ARJ21. The number of orders is expected to go up as the Chinese government is believed to be urging airlines to support the country's domestic aircraft programmes.

Sources close to the ARJ21 programme say more orders are expected to be announced at this month's air show.

In the meantime, work has started on a facility in Shanghai that will eventually assemble the regional jet and Comac's C919 narrowbody.Due for completion in 2012, the facility will produce 50 ARJ21s a year by 2016, Comac has said.

Despite the latest setbacks to the regional jet programme, suppliers involved in the aircraft say they believe the programme will take off eventually, as they point to delays in other more high-profile aircraft programmes such as the Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing's 787.

"Comac is not any different, they have taken a bit longer than they thought," says GE's Seager.

TC Chan, vice-president and managing director of Asia Pacific for Rockwell Collins, which is supplying part of the avionics on the ARJ21, says: "Comac has suffered some delays but we have confidence that the programme will be successful."