Comac has started research on a 300-seat widebody aircraft, which could be jointly developed with Russia.
Sources familiar with the project tell Flightglobal Pro that the Chinese airframer had initially planned on developing a 250-seat jet, but discussions with various airlines found the demand for a 300-seater to be stronger.
"The concept of the jet is still being looked at. Things are not yet at the research and development stage," says one source.
The plan is for a wider use of composites instead of aluminium on the new widebody, which the airframer likely intends to pitch against the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. It is also studying what range the aircraft should have, with options in the 6,500nm (12,025km) and 8,000nm range.
The sources add that Comac has also started talks with engine makers GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce, and is hoping that a new and improved powerplant will be developed for its new widebody.
Research for the widebody programme is being done at Comac’s Aeronautical Science & Technology Research Institute in Beijing. The centre, which started operations last May, was set up specifically for the development of new technologies and future aircraft programmes for the Chinese airframer.
Comac had previously told Flightglobal Pro that it is aiming to have its own widebody aircraft by 2025, with resources to be focused on the project once its C919 narrowbody goes into full production. It has even set aside land for a twin-aisle aircraft production facility at its upcoming final assembly centre south of Pudong’s International airport.
Moscow, meanwhile, has said that it has agreed to work with China on a “large-scale project” to build a long-haul widebody aircraft, though no detailed agreement has been signed. Comac has been tight-lipped about plans to collaborate with Russia, saying that the final decision will have to come from the government.
Sources say that the two countries have been in discussions "for some time now", and are both working on their own preliminary research. A decision should be made by 2015, on whether the two countries will work together on the widebody, and exactly what size the aircraft should be, they add.
There are a number of caveats. Comac is well aware that the market for 300-seaters is extremely competitive, and will be reluctant to enter the market if the aircraft will not be commercially successful. If Comac does move forward, it sees Russian collaboration as essential. Beijing has high regard for Russia’s long history of aerospace development, while Moscow sees a large potential market in China for a new widebody. Working together means less investment from both sides, and reduces risks.
Besides a widebody aircraft, Comac’s research institute in Beijing is also looking into developing a new regional jet in the 100-120 seat market. This will be the next generation of the ARJ21, a project that started more than 11 years ago but is still undergoing flight tests and certification.
The priority however, is to work first on the widebody, before starting work on the new regional jet.
“The aim is for the widebody to enter the market between 2023 and 2025, which gives Comac about 10 years to work,” says a source.
The Chinese airframer is now working hard to get its long delayed ARJ21 certified and delivered by next year. Its C919 narrowbody, which is pitched against the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, is now in the detailed design and engineering development stage, with first flight scheduled for 2015.