China’s attempt to rival aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing with its home-grown narrow-body C919 airliner faces a turbulent future.
According to a Reuters news agency report, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) revealed there is still a huge amount of testing to be done for the passenger jet, raising doubts over the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China’s (COMAC) year-end target.
So far, the C919 has completed only 34 certification requirements out of a planned 276, Yang Zhenmei, a CAAC official, told the media.
The C919 conducted fall-winter testing in Canada with the assistance of flight test provider ITPS or the International Test Pilots School. The program was due to start in March but was pushed back because of Covid-19 related travel restrictions.
All aircraft must show they can withstand and then shed layers of ice without any impact on performance. The ITPS team measures the anti-icing system’s effectiveness on thermally protected surfaces, which include the leading edge of airfoils.
For unprotected surfaces, such as the airplane’s belly, the crew must gauge the airplane’s flying characteristics during a holding pattern, typically for 45 minutes.
The C919 is China’s first aircraft to compete directly with rivals from the United States and Europe. It can carry up to 168 passengers and has a range of up to 5,555 kilometers (3,000 nautical miles), as well as a cruising speed of Mach 0.785 (950 km/h).
Media reports indicate that the price of the latest COMAC C919 aircraft is around US$50 million – much less than its competitors.
For example, Airbus’s A320 costs $101 million while the A320neo has a $110.6 million entry price. The Boeing 737-800, one of the most popular choices for passenger transport on the market today, comes in around $82 million.
In the next 15 years, the global commercial aviation market could be worth US$2 trillion in sales. As for COMAC, it plans to build six different aircraft models, which will include business jets, passenger aircraft, shrinking passenger versions, and cargo.
In September, Reuters reported that COMAC had found it harder to meet certification and production targets for the C919 amid tough US export rules. As of December last year, the US has required special licenses to export parts and technology to any company with ties to the Chinese military, Taipei Times reported.
That has hindered the C919 program, which has been in development for 13 years – one of the longest periods in commercial aviation history.
The aircraft is assembled in China, but relies heavily on Western components, including engines and avionics. That has made it vulnerable to key technologies. US-linked suppliers are gradually receiving export licenses, but the setback has slowed down Chinese certification.
As a result of these delays, COMAC did not take the C919 to China’s biggest air show in Zhuhai in September. COMAC has 815 provisional orders, but only China Eastern Airlines placed a firm commitment for five jets.
The Shanghai-based carrier – disclosing its fleet plans as part of its half-year financial results – was slated to receive one C919 this year, before taking two more in 2022. The last two C919s are penciled in for 2023, FlightGlobal.com reported.
According to media reports, China Eastern also appears to have deferred A350 deliveries by at least a year. Sources with knowledge of the C919 program said the jet’s progress seemed to mirror the certification pattern and slow production of its predecessor, the ARJ21 regional jet.
The ARJ21 faced a 30-month gap between obtaining a “type certificate,” which declares the design safe, and a “production certificate” allowing it to enter mass production. That contrasts with the West, where those certificates are often granted almost simultaneously.
Designed to meet the challenge of decarbonizing air transport, the LEAP-1C engine offers the C919 enhanced performance in terms of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, which are 15% lower. NOx emissions, which can create smog, have been reduced by 50%, the company said.
To achieve its performance, the LEAP-1C is packed with innovative technologies and materials.
The use of a 3D woven composite material and the RTM (resin transfer molding) process developed and patented by Safran Aircraft Engines makes it possible to produce fan blades that are lighter, stronger, and more durable.
The C919’s design also incorporates a new O-Duct thrust reverser concept pioneered by Safran Nacelles. Advantages of the design include reduced weight, increased reverse thrust efficiency, and improved maintenance.
The majority of the C919 program’s key avionics systems, are supplied by western companies such as Collins Aerospace, GE Aviation and Honeywell Aerospace. All have joint ventures and partnerships with Chinese companies supplying COMAC.
Avionics will include core processing, display and onboard maintenance systems.
Rockwell Collins, in partnership with China Electronics Technology Avionics, was awarded a contract for communication and navigation systems. “We’re responsible for three avionics packages on the C919,” GE’s Alan Jones told Avionics International.
“It represents the next generation of avionics,” he said.
Designed to compete with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, the airliner will also feature spacious galleys and toilets designed by subsidiary Safran Cabin, as airlines work towards complying with new inflight catering guidelines.
Still, China’s huge demand for commercial aircraft during the next two decades could pave the way for the growth and success of the C919, the state-run Global Times reported. The country’s total commercial fleet is projected to reach 8,684 by 2035.
“The C919’s real mission is to conquer a domestic market dominated by its two foreign competitors,” Jean-Francois Dufour, the chief analyst of DCA Chine-Analyse, said.
“Ten to 15 years from now, a next-generation C919, or other models developed by COMAC, may become real competitors on the global scene.”
Sources: Reuters, Aerospace Testing International, SimpleFlying.com, AINOnline.com, Taipei Times, Avionics International, Global Times, Japan Times, AirplaneUpdate.com