Long-delayed ARJ21 certification slips again

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Comac's ARJ21 regional jet is unlikely to receive certification until at least late next year, sources familiar with the aircraft project tell Flightglobal Pro.

This means that the programme, which started around 11 years ago, will again be delayed. At Airshow China in Zhuhai in 2012, the programme's chief designer Chen Yong said the aim was for the ARJ21 to receive certification from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in the first half of 2013, and to deliver the jet to launch customer Chengdu Airlines in 2014. Thereafter, it could take up to two years before the aircraft gets validated by the US Federal Aviation Administration, he added.

Progress however has been slow because the inexperienced airframer continues to work with the CAAC, which is certificating a commercial jet for the first time, and is therefore unfamiliar with the process, sources say.

It is understood that the ARJ21 has completed about 70% of the validation tests scheduled, and about 60% of flight tests necessary - which means it is almost impossible for the jet to be certificated this year.

Publicly, the airframer said the ARJ21 passed several major milestones this year, including stall tests and minimum unstick speed tests - two high risk and critical tests of the programme.

Its four flight test aircraft have clocked over 3,500 flight hours since first flight in 2008. Aircraft 105 and 106 are in the final assembly line, due to be completed this year. However, these two jets - due to be delivered to Chengdu Airlines - could first be used for certification tests so as to speed up the process, sources say.

The airframer's lack of experience in aircraft development and certification has largely been blamed for the slow progress of the aging ARJ21. Moreover, five-year-old Comac has the added challenge of getting the talent pool and necessary infrastructure ready.

Working with the CAAC towards certification has also not been smooth sailing as its inexperience in the certification process shows. It did not help that Comac had chosen to work with the regulators relatively late in the ARJ21's development, suppliers previously told Flightglobal Pro.

The CAAC has to be present at validation tests, and this has resulted in further delays as it is not always easy to co-ordinate the schedules of both organisations, sources add.

"Sometimes it feels like two students - Comac and the CAAC - are working on the project together, and that the FAA is the teacher," describes a source.

Changes are still being made to the aircraft at this juncture. As recent as March, Comac was modifying the aircraft's landing gear. Liebherr-Aerospace, which supplies the landing gear, had told Flightglobal Pro that improvements made to the aircraft after years of flight tests have affected its landing gear system, and that these need to be "adapted to the updated aircraft's operational features".

The delivery of the ARJ21 was initially scheduled for 2007. The deadline however was pushed back multiple times as engineers encountered problems in the development as well as certification processes. The US FAA is conducting a shadow certification process alongside the CAAC's certification.

Comac has so far garnered 252 commitments for the ARJ21, mostly from Chinese airlines and leasing companies.