Few would argue with the characterization by a senior Western airframe manufacturer of the Comac C919 as “a serious project by a serious company.” But the clumsy effort by the Chinese conglomerate to certify the ARJ21 regional jet begs the question: Do serious intentions necessarily equate to a serious product?
On paper, the C919 appears to represent a credible alternative to the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 for the Chinese domestic market—if and when it ever reaches fruition. While the Chinese certainly seem to enjoy the financial wherewithal, they cannot buy their way into international relevance in areas of expertise developed over decades of intensive study, trial and error and sheer perseverance. So while they can recruit Western companies to supply the parts and systems, integrating and assembling an airplane truly competitive in the global marketplace will take far more than the few years advertised.
Granted, no one should deny the Chinese their due for the progress they have made in terms of public infrastructure and economic growth—and even for their advances in certain high-tech disciplines. But, as they’ve found out in trying to bring the comparatively archaic ARJ21 to the market, top-tier sophistication in the field of civil aerospace remains far from reach.
In fact, the ARJ21 appears certain to draw away resources sorely needed for the development of the C919. Now hoping for certification of the 100-seat regional jet some time in 2014, the Chinese have worked on that airplane for more than a decade, even with the significant head start they enjoyed. It’s no coincidence the airplane looks a lot like a DC-9; the tooling used to build the airframe came from the failed MD-90 Trunkliner project on which the Chinese had partnered with McDonnell Douglas in the 1990s.
Still, the ARJ21’s first flight—originally scheduled for 2005—didn’t happen until November 2008. Four years later, it remains at least another 18 months away from certification. Coincidentally, the original plan called for certification 18 months after the imagined 2005 first flight.
So what makes the Chinese and the C919s suppliers so confident that this latest effort will yield results comparable to that of a Western airframer? When it comes to suppliers, it might simply amount to wishful thinking. As far as the deference Boeing and Airbus executives have shown, one might conclude that they fear offending what amounts to both a major customer—the Chinese government—and a major supplier to Western programs. Whatever the reasons, don’t expect a candid assessment of the C919 from anyone even remotely connected to the project or the Chinese aerospace complex as a whole. As largely remains the case in China, such openness comes with a price to pay.