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ANALYSIS: CR929 programme picks up speed

Development of the CRAIC CR929 is gathering pace, as its Sino-Russian manufacturers look for more parts suppliers having finalised its external shape.

In July, Russia's United Aircraft (UAC) and China's Comac put out a formal request for an undercarriage supplier. This followed an announcement in May that the joint venture had received bids from seven domestic and foreign engine suppliers. A month earlier, CRAIC had submitted proposals relating to certification procedures for the CR929, with Russian federal regulator Rosaviatsia in charge of certification responsibilities, in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

Also in June, CRAIC finalised the external dimensions and shape of the long-haul aircraft, clearing another major hurdle in the design process. The initial -600 variant's configuration was shown to have a leading-edge sweep similar to the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 787, but with a seemingly narrower outboard section.

UAC lists the -600 variant with a capacity of up to 280 seats. The CR929 also has a shrink variant (the -500) with 250 seats, and a stretch variant (-700) with up to 320.

Richard Evans, senior consultant at Flight Ascend Consultancy, expects the CR929 to have a higher empty weight than the 787 and A350, while having the same level of engine technology – presumably using derivatives of the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000-TEN/7000 and/or General Electric GEnx.

This, he explains, is consistent with the -600's quoted range of 6,480nm (12,000km), which is similar to the 242t variant of the A330-300, which uses lower thrust and higher SFC (thrust-specific fuel consumption) engines. The -500 is expected to have an operational range of up to 7,560nm, the -700 up to 5,400nm.

UAC and Comac have previously indicated that the aircraft is expected to be initially powered by an engine from one of the major Western manufacturers, with an indigenous powerplant to be developed later. Reports suggest that GE Aviation and R-R responded to the engine request for proposals in July 2017. Pratt & Whitney has also proposed to build a new widebody aircraft engine based on its fan drive gear system.

On the indigenous engine front, Moscow awarded a $1.13 billion contract in January to United Engine and Aviadvigatel to develop a demonstrator powerplant named the PD-35-1 by 2023. It is expected to have over 70,000lb (312kN) of thrust and mimics the structural configuration of the 787's GEnx-1B engine. It will feature several state-of-the-art technologies, including wide-chord composite fan blades and a composite fan case, ceramic matrix composites and advanced cooling systems.

"This thrust level has been set above what is perhaps really needed for the initial -600 variant, with a view to the aircraft being heavier than desired, plus an eye on the stretched version's requirements," says Evans.

The dual engine option is also found on the Russia-made Irkut MC-21, which is scheduled for delivery in the first quarter of 2020. Customers can select either the Aviadvigatel PD-14 or P&W PW1400G.

The selection of suppliers for key aircraft systems and equipment is part of CRAIC's "Gate 3" milestone that is expected to be cleared by mid-2019, says UAC. The other next steps involve completing windtunnel tests and choosing structural materials.

With the CR929 scheduled for entry into service in the late-2020s, Ray Jaworowski, senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International, adds that it "would not be a surprise" if there were delays, as with any new aircraft programme.

Nonetheless, UAC will be hoping that the CR929 will be more successful than its last widebody, the Ilyushin Il-96. Flight Fleets Analyzer shows that only 25 Il-96s have entered commercial service with six airlines, with the last aircraft delivered in 2016. Just 15 remain in service today.

INVOLVEMENT OF WESTERN SUPPLIERS

Analysts say the development of the CR929 means more than just national pride for China and Russia.

Jaworowski says manufacturing the aircraft would give Comac "another stepping stone to future inroads into the global commercial aerospace market". The Chinese manufacturer will hence find it easier to form partnerships with Western suppliers and establish a sales, marketing, and product support infrastructure.

On the other hand, Western manufacturers involved in the CR929 programme could have another avenue into a "market of considerable potential," he adds.

But global trade tensions, namely those between the USA and China, could represent "a wild card in the situation", says Jaworowski. He elaborates that an escalating trade war, with retaliatory tariffs between the respective countries, could make Western systems more expensive for CRAIC to install on the CR929. There could also be a disruption to CRAIC's supply chain.

Nonetheless, he is confident that the CR929 could see substantial sales.

"Rapid economic and air traffic growth in China promise a burgeoning market for new airliners. Russian airlines will also engage in substantial fleet modernisation in the years ahead. Barring trade complications, much of this demand will be met by aircraft from Airbus and Boeing, but the market will be sizable enough to find room for the CR929."

Rob Morris, global head of Flight Ascend Consultancy, notes that aircraft programmes are "long-term enterprises", and that "today's increasing trade tensions could hopefully be a relatively short-term phenomenon".

He argues: "It would be high-risk for Comac and UAC to view the present tensions as drivers to their selection process, because once they have selected a key supplier it will be challenging to change at any point in the programme."

That said, he expects more involvement to come from Western OEMs because there are relatively few new commercial aircraft programmes in development, "provided that they believe the market proposition is acceptable and a business case can be made to supply profitably".

THE NEED FOR ROBUST CUSTOMER SUPPORT

Potential trade wars are far from the only challenges CRAIC faces, though.

At the 2018 Farnborough air show, UAC subsidiary Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) told FlightGlobal it was looking to invest heavily in European customer-support facilities as it sought to boost sales of Superjet 100s to airlines outside Russia.

"It is a lesson we have learnt, to make sure that airlines are fully satisfied with our aircraft. This includes training facilities, improved spare-part supplies and MRO facilities," said SCAC president Alexander Rubtsov.

He added that such facilities will be part of a larger network that would also support fellow Russian-built commercial aircraft like the MC-21 and CR929 when these enter service.

Underlining the suboptimal aftersales support from Russian suppliers, Mexico's InterJet seems to have had a less-than-optimum experience with the Superjet. In September, the carrier said it would phase out an unannounced number of the airliners and take 20 more A320neos in a fleet restructuring that formed part of a new three-year strategic plan.

FlightGlobal had previously reported that the cuts to InterJet's Superjet fleet followed several operational challenges the airline had encountered since beginning operations with the type in 2013. Defects to the aircraft's stabiliser nodes forced InterJet to ground half of the fleet in early 2017, and aircraft have been cannibalised for parts.

Meanwhile, a source close to developments says InterJet's support experience with the SSJ100 "amply illustrates" the challenge faced by any new aspiring OEM.

"Design and initial delivery of a new commercial aircraft is challenging enough, but the key to winning and retaining airline customers is delivery of a holistic support service which ensures each aircraft is delivered on time and to performance, and then [made] available with dispatch reliability that matches or betters the established OEM products."

The source adds that InterJet's cannibalisation of aircraft to maintain the operations of others "indicates a failure in [Sukhoi's] spares support", causing other potential export customers to seek guarantees from Superjet and other Russian OEMs before even considering an acquisition of aircraft.

Morris says that UAC and Comac can learn lessons from Sukhoi in creating a global support network that covers spares, maintenance and training, should they hope to penetrate international markets.

Evans also echoes similar sentiments and adds: "It is even more critical for the CR929 as a long-haul aircraft."

He notes: "Aircraft-on-ground issues thousands of miles from home are extremely costly and disruptive if not resolved quickly. I would expect any Chinese-operated fleets of CR929s to be flown domestically at first, before airlines have the confidence to deploy them on key European or North American routes."

DEMAND PROFILE

According to FlightGlobal's 2018 Flight Fleet Forecast, CRAIC stands to break the widebody duopoly of Airbus and Boeing in a decade with the launch of the CR929. It is forecast that deliveries of the CR929 and other in-development twin-aisles will have a potential combined value of $110 billion.

Most demand, inevitably, will come from Russia and China, if the ARJ21, C919, SSJ100, and MC-21 are any guide. Of 305 C919 orders, 255 are from Chinese airlines and lessors, as are 206 of the 223 ARJ21s on order. UAC's entire backlog of 175 MC-21s are from Russian companies, with 10 out of 26 SSJ100 orders from Russia.

In terms of domestic deliveries among the four aircraft types, Sukhoi leads the way with 100 in-service Superjets in Russia, while there are nine ARJ21s in service in China, Flight Fleets Analyzer shows.

Flight Fleet Forecast sees the bulk of demand for the CR929 coming from China (61%), with Russia/CIS taking 11% of deliveries. "Small quantities" of deliveries are expected for Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.

Flight Fleets Analyzer also indicates that there are around 225 A330s in service with Chinese airlines, along with 67 787s and A350s. Analysts expect the CR929's closest competitors to be the A330 and 787, based on seat count and range.

Furthermore, Morris says that instead of airlines placing orders for the CR929, early deliveries are most likely to come from Chinese operating lessors. These buyers will "be heavily involved" given their prominence in the orderbooks for the ARJ21 and C919. Still, the CR929's unproven status could pose a worry for them.

"Lessors and financiers will be uncertain about the CR929's liquidity and residual value outlook, and will be nervous about financing it until [it is] proven."

At the forthcoming Airshow China in Zhuhai, the aerospace world will be looking to learn more about this ambitious Sino-Russian programme.

Get all the coverage from Airshow China here

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