July 7, 2012 4:21 am

Comac: China offers serious challenge to Boeing and Airbus

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A Comac ARJ21©Bloomberg

A Comac ARJ21 takes off during an air show in China

Historians might one day look back on June 2012 as an important turning point for China’s ambitions in aerospace.

However, it will probably take more than a decade for it to develop an aircraft manufacturer to rival Airbus and Boeing.

The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac, was founded in 2008 for the express purpose of breaking the Airbus-Boeing duopoly, a goal that the Chinese government believes has strategic importance given the 5,000 jets that the country is expected to buy over the next two decades.

To meet those lofty ambitions Comac sensibly opted to start small.

Its first step was to produce the ARJ21 Xiangfeng, a regional jet meant to compete with Embraer and Boeing.

The plan was then to build on the hoped-for success of the ARJ21 and move up a size with the C919, a narrow-body aircraft family that would take on the workhorses of the industry, the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737. Only after that would it graduate to twin-aisle, longer-distance jets.

Comac, however, has stumbled at the starting blocks. The ARJ21, which it inherited from other Chinese state-run companies, completed its first maiden flight in 2008, a full three years behind schedule.

Airworthiness certifications have been repeatedly delayed since then, because of a series of setbacks: a wing cracked on a test flight in 2010 and industry insiders say there have also been wiring and computer problems.

The struggle to get the ARJ21 into the air is a serious threat to the C919 timetable, which was supposed to enter commercial service in 2016 and, by extension, to Comac’s larger objective of challenging Airbus and Boeing.

But things are finally starting to look up for the Chinese manufacturer.

On June 28, Comac said that the ARJ21 had undergone multiple landing and take-off tests on a flooded runway, a crucial and tricky phase in assessing whether an aircraft is airworthy.

It also said it had completed airspeed calibration, icing and crosswind tests and that it was preparing for a stall flight test.

He Dongfeng, Comac president, gave one of the most optimistic assessments heard in years from a company official.

“After 10 years, the development of the ARJ21 has entered its final stage. The last step is to complete the airworthiness tests and to obtain the airworthiness certification,” he said in a statement.

Last month, Comac sealed a series of deals that could also strengthen its hand. With France’s Safran Labinal, it formed a joint venture to work on the electrical wiring connection systems for the C919.

Comac also reached an agreement with Bombardier of Canada to co-operate on research and development.

And it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation to develop a wide-body long-range aircraft.

On top of these agreements, Comac received an order for 20 C919s from the financial leasing arm of the Agricultural Bank of China, bringing its backlog to 280 orders.

The joint ventures and the orders, by themselves, do not necessarily mean all that much.

Comac already has a dizzying array of joint ventures with foreign companies supplying critical components.

And the vast majority of the jet orders come from Chinese companies, which appear to be buying Comac aircraft more of out of state-directed patriotic duty than out of any kind of commercial rationale.

But, taken together, the deals add much-needed momentum to Comac’s progress

Chaker A. Chahrour, executive vice-president of CFM International, a venture between General Electric and Safran that is supplying Leap-X1C engines for the C919, says he believes the narrow-body project is moving ahead as planned and would not suffer delays like the ARJ21.

“We have confidence in Comac. We think it will be on schedule, we seek updates just about every day,” he told Bloomberg.

Airbus and Boeing are not yet losing sleep over Comac, and they face other potential competitors in Brazil, Canada and Russia.

But the two companies are keeping an especially close eye on their aspiring Chinese rival.

“I don’t believe all of them are going to be successful,” Jim Albaugh, executive vice-president of Boeing, told Aviation Daily last month. “My guess is one of them will emerge and become a very good competitor for us, and I won’t be surprised if it was China.”

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