With the establishment of Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) in May 2008, China declared its intention to become a world player in aircraft manufacturing.
While Comac was launched specifically to build a narrowbody jet – the C919 – the company also inherited the ARJ21 regional jet programme from AVIC. More recently, Comac formed a joint venture with Russia's United Aircraft (UAC) to develop a widebody, the CR929.
The ARJ21, then an AVIC programme, was first launched at the 2002 edition of Airshow China, with the aim of having the regional jet enter service four years later in 2006.
Despite AVIC's best efforts, and although the ARJ21 was far from state of the art, the first flight only took place in November 2008. It took another six years to obtain Chinese type certification. By the time the ARJ21 was approved, the aircraft had accumulated more than 5,000 flight hours, double the time for a similar programme in the West.
It took three more years for the ARJ21 to obtain a production certificate from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), allowing batch production to move forward.
Between its receipt of production and type certifications, however, the aircraft entered commercial service with launch customer Chengdu Airlines on 28 June 2016.
Despite these milestones, the ARJ21 was still conducting flight tests well into 2017 and 2018, following some design optimisation. Tests conducted in 2017 include crosswind trials, testing an upgraded flight control system software, as well as evaluating the VHF antenna's vibration during flight. Testing done in 2018 covered crosswind validation and high temperature performance.
Even with a shadow certification conducted by the US Federal Aviation Administration during the aircraft's development, the ARJ21 still has yet to receive Western certification.
Since the initial delivery made in November 2015 to launch customer Chengdu Airlines, Flight Fleets Analyzer data shows there have been only five additional deliveries. All six aircraft are now in service with the carrier.
Fleets Analyzer indicates that as of 31 August 2018, Comac has an outstanding order for 221 ARJ21s, up from the 196 it had on 31 December 2017. The increased number reflects an order placed by start-up Genghis Khan Airlines for 25 ARJ21s.
Rob Morris, global head of consultancy at Flight Ascend Consultancy, notes that while the ARJ21 could be competitive with the current generation of Bombardier CRJs and Embraer E-Jets, it will struggle to compete with the next generation of regional jets.
Based on recent flight tracking data, the six ARJ21s in service appear to have an average monthly utilisation rate of around 30 hours. The only exception is the most recently delivered aircraft, which has a higher utilisation rate – suggesting, says Morris, a more mature and reliable build standard.
The small orderbook also matches the Flight Fleets Forecast prediction that, of the 10,200 aircraft that Chinese carriers are expected to operate by 2037, only 460 will be regional jets.
The forecast expects around 79 ARJ21s to be delivered over the period, mostly to the Chinese market. The future focus will likely instead be on the C919 narrowbody.
"China has been relatively slow to develop a network of regional feeders, with only around 140 aircraft, and with mostly 85- and 100-seaters currently used. The 50-seater fleet is being rapidly phased out. Deliveries of the new Chinese-built Comac ARJ21 programme, although delayed, began in 2015, and we believe that the development of airports in smaller cities will lead to growth of regional connections," states Flight Fleets Forecast.
To boost ARJ21 sales, output will have to be raised, along with an increase in utilisation rates. While the orders from Genghis Khan Airlines and five other operators "will be pivotal to broadening the breadth of operation", these aircraft need to be delivered and in service in order to further build a reputation for delivery and reliability, says Morris.
Drawing on lessons from the ARJ21, Comac took a more conservative approach with the C919 narrowbody programme. On 5 May 2017, the day the C919 made its maiden sortie, flight test manager You Li Yan told FlightGlobal that the company had allocated 4,200 flight hours for the C919 programme. Comac is allocating three years to certifcate and move the aircraft into commercial service.
The 4,200h figure is lower than the 5,000h the ARJ21 logged before obtaining certification from the CAAC, but higher than the 3,000h Airbus and Boeing typically log for their own narrowbody programmes.
The second C919 prototype took flight in December 2017, but then Comac went quiet for six months. It was only on 22 June 2018 that the two prototypes flew again, when both jets underwent stability tests and systems checks.
During the first half of 2018, aircraft 101 underwent modifications and load calibrations in Xian, while aircraft 102 had its functions and systems checked, along with tests and other modifications.
In mid-July, Comac conducted the bending of static test aircraft 10001's wings by nearly 3m (10ft) for 3s, simulating a 2.5g manoeuvre, and an ultimate wing load of 150%. A separate test also examined the aircraft's limit load, which reflects the maximum expected load.
Comac has set a 2020-2021 target for the C919 to achieve certification and service entry. But Morris says the track record of new manufacturers suggests that any certification and entry-into-service targets could be "challenged".
Asked about the significance of Comac's selection of Western suppliers for the C919, Morris explains that these suppliers were chosen for their ability to "offer the most appropriate solution to the requirement, whether it be engines, avionics, systems or structure".
The most important such contribution is the CFM International Leap-1C engine, which will serve as the type's powerplant until an indigenous engine option – the CJ-1000AX –becomes available.
"To succeed both in domestic and export markets, the C919 must offer the most competitive possible solution, and this must have been a key driver to the partner selections," he adds.
Comac's website states that the aircraft will have a range of between 2,200nm (4,075km) and 3,000nm. This falls short of the 3,400nm range flown by an Airbus A320neo, and 3,550nm of the Boeing 737 Max 8.
In terms of capacity, it will seat between 156 passengers in a two-class configuration, and 168 passengers in a single class. Again, this is less than the A320neo or Max 8.
As of 31 August 2018, Fleets Analyzer data indicates that Comac has 305 C919s on order, with options for 45 more aircraft. Letters of intent have been signed for 658 additional aircraft.
Flight Fleets Forecast predicts delivery of 1,209 C919s: 687 standard and 522 stretched variants. China will account for 85% of all deliveries, as the country's domestic market will require a substantial number of single-aisles and is large enough to support the C919, as well as 737s and locally assembled A320s.
Morris notes: "From what little detail we have, the C919 appears to offer broadly similar payload-range and economic performance propositions compared to the existing single-aisle programmes. Yet it will end up competing with the Neo and Max. The strength will of course be its indigenous design and manufacture, but that hasn't proven enough to create a successful programme to date with ARJ21."
Source: Cirium Dashboard