Comac Keeps Faith in ARJ21 Despite Slow Progress

 - January 1, 2013, 12:15 AM
Now more than a decade in the making, the Comac ARJ21 won’t likely see revenue service until well into 2014.

If nothing else, China’s Comac has shown considerable persistence in its pursuit of certification for the ARJ21-700 regional jet, now more than a decade into development and at least a year-and-a-half away from entry into service.

The ARJ21-700 development prototype, B-992L, flew every day during the Airshow China exhibition held in Zhuhai (November 13 to 18), where Comac claimed a bright future for a program whose maiden flight dates back to Nov. 28, 2008.

Comac announced that during recent flight-testing the ARJ21 prototypes demonstrated stall characteristics compliant with specification, marking the successful conclusion of one of the most challenging aspects of the flight-test campaign. In September Comac completed emergency evacuation tests and passed a joint review by China’s CAAC and the U.S. FAA, and, in June, flight-test crew performed engine splash water tests. Three months earlier one of four operable airframes flew to Urumchi for icing tests to complete the second step in type certification trials. It completed the first phase on February 26, when the engine nacelle passed anti-ice tests.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology completed its critical review of the ARJ21-700 in December 2008, formally allowing the program to enter its flight-test and certification phase. It took until August 2011 to successfully complete flutter flight-testing, and in June that year an airframe built for bench testing passed “whole aircraft pitch (2.5g) load static tests.”

Comac describes the ARJ21 as “a new turbofan-powered regional jet with exclusive intellectual property rights owned by China.” It designed the baseline version to carry 90 passengers in standard configuration and 78 passengers in mixed-class, five-seat-abreast configuration. Powered by a pair of General Electric CF34-10 turbofans, it cruises at Mach 0.78 and at a maximum altitude of 39,000 feet. At a maximum takeoff weight of 40,500 kg (89,287 pounds), the standard version can fly 1,200 nm, and the extended-range version up to 2,000 nm.

At the company’s press conference on Airshow China’s opening day, Comac vice general manager Luo Ronghuai acknowledged that type certification could take another “one or two years” to complete. Comac presented its message to journalists in a freshly released 2012 market forecast for the next 20 years. “The development of new airports in the next 10 years, many in the smaller and medium-sized cities, will encourage the use of regional aircraft,” it said. “Comac’s new 90-seat ARJ21 program will be the right size for developing these routes, as well as providing off-peak frequencies on routes currently served by larger jets.”

The forecast predicts that Chinese airlines, including operators in Hong Kong and Macau, will take delivery of 678 regional jets by 2031, as well as 3,405 single-aisle jets and 868 twin-aisle jets. “Regional jets are now an established element of the [global] airline industry, although the share of the regional jets will drop to 13 percent [from almost 19 percent] of the total fleet,” it notes. “Deliveries of 3,819 new regional jets are forecast over the 20-year period, of which 80 percent (3,062) are expected to be in the 90-seat size, which includes the ARJ-21.”

The ARJ21 enjoys a large anchor market: China’s mainland domestic routes connect 170 cities. They already form the world’s second largest domestic market, accounting for 19 percent of all domestic air traffic (the U.S. accounts for 28 percent). The Chinese market continues to grow rapidly; most recent statistics show an 11.5-percent year-over-year increase in traffic. Comac’s forecast gives the combined strength of Chinese fleets at 1,839 aircraft as of early last year. In 2011 China’s GDP grew by 9.2 percent year-over-year, significantly higher than other major regions of the world. Traffic projections suggested that more than 300 million passengers would fly domestically in China last year.