Manufacturers behind China and Russia's emerging narrow-bodies are progressing full steam ahead with development of their aircraft programmes, although it remains to be seen whether they will be viable competitors against a new breed of re-engined narrow-bodies from Boeing and Airbus.

The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) C919 has won launch orders for up to 100 aircraft from Chinese carriers Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Chinese lessor CDB Leasing Company and GECAS.

Comac, which announced the orders at last November's Airshow China in Zhuhai, indicated at June's Paris Air Show that more orders would come this year, hinting that new customers could include foreign lessors. The airframer, which has traditionally held a low-key presence at international air shows, showed that it meant business at Paris in June where it exhibited its full-scale C919 cabin mock-up for the first time outside of China.



It also made headlines by signing a memorandum of understanding with low-cost carrier Ryanair at Paris, a move that the Chinese manufacturer hopes could lead to orders of the C919. Comac has said it plans to incorporate Ryanair's feedback into the design of the aircraft. Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary has said the carrier is in talks with Comac to acquire the C919, and could potentially order more than 200 aircraft.

It is not clear yet if Ryanair will eventually order the C919, but the carrier is in the market for a new aircraft deal, with its existing Boeing 737 deliveries to end in early 2012. O'Leary has said he foresees new deliveries to begin in 2017.

The deal with Ryanair is not the only tie-up that Comac has forged with a foreign company, as it seeks to be taken seriously in the international market. It has signed a co-operation deal with Bombardier, which is developing the CSeries narrow-body. The manufacturers are hoping to find commonalities between the two aircraft so they can market the aircraft together.

Among the possibilities being explored is the use of common materials, offering customers the option of buying both aircraft together and sharing other resources like customer support. Bombardier has said that while no definitive agreements have been made yet, the plans are progressing.

Comac, which is aiming for first flight of the C919 in 2014, is aiming to have its first metal cut in December. It is in the final detailed design phase for the aircraft and has said that development is progressing smoothly. Comac is hoping to market the aircraft overseas after it enters into service in China in 2016. It has said it plans to get the C919 certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency.

While the C919 will initially be powered by the CFM International Leap-X1C, there are plans to eventually offer an alternative power plant to be built by Aviation Corporation of China (AVIC) Commercial Aircraft Engine and Germany's MTU. Called the CJ-1000A, it is expected to enter into service by 2020.

Like Comac, Russia's Irkut, which is developing the MS-21 narrow-body, is also aiming for first flight in 2014. The manufacturer has so far won up to almost 200 orders for the aircraft and has started work on the final assembly plant in Irkutsk.

Irkut MS-21

 © Irkut

Irkut got a boost for the programme in August, when orders for up to 135 MS-21s from state firm Rostekhnologii and lessor Ilyushin Finance were firmed up. The airframer aims to get the twinjet certified in 2016, with deliveries beginning in 2017. It plans to complete the final design phase by end-2012 and has said it is confident of achieving this target.

The airframer's president, Alexey Fedorov, said the company will start work on the larger MS-21-400 variant after it completes the final design work for the smaller variants, the -200 and -300. Irkut envisages a market for 1,200 MS-21s eventually.

The aircraft is also likely to get a boost from a new partnership signed between Rostekhnologii and Irkut's parent United Aircraft, which aims to create Russian-made aircraft that will compete strongly against foreign manufacturers. The partnership will have a goal of securing 10% of global sales in the civil market by 2025, with domestic suppliers providing at least 70% of the systems. The MS-21 has been identified as among the priority areas to be covered by the partnership, along with other aircraft types like the Sukhoi Superjet and Tupolev Tu-204SM.

Industry watchers have observed that Comac and Irkut have their work cut out for them in meeting the 2014 first flight timescale, even though both manufacturers have said they are on track to meet this date. Comac, in particular, is also grappling with its ARJ21 regional jet programme even as it dedicates vast resources to the C919.

The ARJ21 has fallen behind in its flight test schedule, and sources close to Comac have said that the airframer is unlikely to make first delivery at the end of this year. While it is not clear yet how the ARJ21 delays will impact the C919 programme, it is believed that the airframer will learn lessons from its regional jet programme that it would apply to the C919.

ARJ21, ©Rex Features

 ©Rex Features

What could pose as bigger challenges to the C919 and MS-21, though, are the re-engined narrow-bodies being offered now by Airbus and Boeing. Airbus unveiled its A320neo late last year with a choice of two engines, and says it will burn 15% less fuel than existing A320 models.

Boeing countered this in August with its 737 Max, which it says will produce a 4% lower fuel burn than the A320neo. The US airframer said it has order commitments for 496 aircraft when it launched the 737 Max, while Airbus has orders and commitments for 1,200 A320neos.

It remains to be seen how Comac and Irkut's offerings would stand next to the re-engined versions of the 737 and A320 - both narrow-bodies that have already proven their worth. The Chinese and Russian airframers, however, believe there is enough demand in the marketplace for new players, even as they acknowledge that the competition will not be easy.

Irkut's Fedorov said in August at the MAKS air show in Moscow: "This narrow-body market is the toughest, but it is also the biggest. There is room for another player that offers a competitive price and option. The MS-21 can hold its own as it will come out only one to two years after the A320neo."

The C919 is scheduled to enter into service in 2016, the same year that the A320neo will make its debut. Comac's chief designer Wu Guanghui has declined to be drawn into comparisons with the A320neo, saying that while the A320neo is a re-engined aircraft, the C919 is a brand new product. "We plan to use the engine to its full potential," he said.

While industry players doubt that the C919 and MS-21 will make a dent in Boeing and Airbus's market shares in the narrow-bodies segment, there is no doubting the political ambition of China and Russia in bringing the programmes to fruition. Rostekhnologii's partnership with United Aircraft to support the development of domestic aircraft programmes is just one step of that process. While Comac is still a newcomer on the aircraft manufacturers' scene, the strong support it has from the Chinese government will ensure that it at least creates a product that will have a substantial presence in the domestic market eventually.

Source: Flight International