Comac Rolls Out C919, But Program Timeline Still Uncertain

 - November 6, 2015, 12:15 PM
China's Comac rolled-out its new C919 airliner at its Shanghai factory on November 2. [Photo: Comac]

After seven years of development marked by repeated delays, China’s new C919 airliner is ready to start ground testing of its avionics, flight controls and hydraulics systems after making its debut in a roll-out ceremony on November 2. Developed by state-run Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac), the narrowbody rolled off the assembly line in the manufacturer’s Shanghai factory on to a crowd of roughly 4,000 government officials and representatives of foreign program partners. The new twinjet promises a range of just over 3,000 nm (5,555 km) and will be able to seat between 158 and 174 passengers.

Comac believes the C919 will allow it to challenge the market dominance of Airbus and Boeing. It believes it can sell up to around 2,000 of the new model over the next 20 years.

However, questions remain as to whether the Chinese group can get the C919 into production in a timely enough way to meet demand from airlines that also now have the option to upgrade to the new A320neo and Boeing 737 Max. The C919 program has been plagued by a series of setbacks, including technology and supplier problems, which previously pushed its maiden flight originally scheduled for 2014 to late 2015.  

At the roll-out, Comac chairman Jin Zhunaglong said that the aircraft’s maiden test flight is now scheduled for 2016, but he declined to specify how soon this could happen next year. Foreign program partners have told AIN that they are not permitted to comment on the shifting timeline for the program. However, Comac officials speaking on condition of anonymity said that they are still a long way off from having a complete aircraft ready to fly.

As for deliveries to airlines, Comac previously stated in May 2014 that first delivery would be in 2018 but has since declined to give an update. The subject was not brought up at the roll-out; however, the same officials close to the program said delivery could be delayed to 2020.

Despite uncertainties, Comac said the C919 has amassed 517 orders and commitments from 21 customers, including seven Chinese airlines, two foreign carriers and 12 aircraft leasing firms. Among the foreign customers, Thailand’s City Airways has ordered 10 C919s, GE Capital Aviation Services has signed on for 20 jets and PuRen Airlines, a Germany-based, Chinese-backed startup has signed a letter of intent for seven aircraft.

Although the C919 is made in China, there is significant Western content in the aircraft. These include engine maker CFM International (a joint venture between GE Aviation and Snecma), which is providing its new Leap-1C turbofan. Other systems are being provided by Honeywell, United Technologies’ subsidiary Goodrich, Rockwell Collins, Liebherr, Zodiac Aerospace, Meggitt, Eaton and Parker Aerospace