In June, Chinese and Russian officials agreed to form a joint venture to collaborate on the development, production and after-sales support of a widebody airliner.

In Comac’s new office in Shanghai, a team has been working closely with Russia’s United Aircraft (UAC) to detail the widebody programme, which is slated to deliver an aircraft to enter service by 2027.

UAC has been quite open about the planned collaboration. Comac, meanwhile, has been largely silent, leaving any announcements to the Chinese government. In July, however, it told FlightGlobal that both parties had decided on a 280-seat twinjet design with a 6,500nm (12,000km) range. The first flight is planned in 2022.

Following the formation of the joint venture in Shanghai, engineers from both sides will design and develop the aircraft. Final assembly will be in Shanghai, near the C919 assembly line.

Suppliers tell FlightGlobal they expect the joint venture to be finalised by the end of 2016. A request for proposals is expected in the second quarter of 2017, following which the allocation of work between the two parties should crystalise.

UAC president Yuri Slyusar has said the aircraft, dubbed by some the C929, will be powered by either GE Aviation or Rolls-Royce. In the longer term, both countries want to develop their own powerplant for the type. However, there have been no discussions so far about jointly developing an engine, the Chinese side says.

Slyusar is targeting 2025-2027 for service entry. The jet will benefit from Russian technologies derived from the Irkut MC-21, such as carbonfibre wings, fly-by-wire controls, active sidesticks and 6,000ft altitude cabin pressurisation.

Flight Ascend Consultancy’s Richard Evans says the planned widebody is aimed at the twin-aisle sweet spot of about 300 seats with intercontinental range. This puts the aircraft in direct competition with the Boeing 787-9, Airbus A330-900neo and A350-900.

Flight Fleet Forecast predicts deliveries of about 3,500 aircraft in this category over the next 20 years.

Evans is sceptical about the China-Russia venture going head-to-head with such formidable rivals. He feels the venture would be better off developing a dedicated medium-range type that aims to fill the “middle of the market” gap to some extent. This would meet the need for a domestic high-capacity aircraft and not compete head-on with the two giants.

Industry observers also point out that the bureaucracy inherent in such a large-scale project could prove challenging. Success will rely on mutual trust, and the two companies do not have a history of working together. On the other hand, China could benefit from Russia’s design and certification experience. Both players will also get access to a larger combined market.

Others feel that Comac already has its hands full with the C919, which faces a long testing and certification process. Work also continues on the ARJ21, which has yet to receive a production certificate and is still flying with restrictions.

The biggest concern, however, is whether the pair can make the aircraft a commercial success. Airlines used to the efficiency and reliability of Airbus and Boeing types will take some convincing to try a new jet.

“Based on experience-to-date, I would not be confident that a Russian/Chinese twin-aisle will sell in large quantities,” says Evans.

“Whilst short-haul aircraft can deal with reliability issues relatively easily, with a spare aircraft able to be dispatched to recover passengers by cancellations etc, in the long-haul market disruption costs and reputational damage are much higher.”

Source: Flight International