Despite 10 years of development and a wealth of support from foreign firms, China’s efforts to gain entry into Western markets with an indigenous airliner continue to progress slowly as Comac struggles to bring its ambitious C919 project in line with U.S. Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
According to a source working closely with Comac who spoke with AIN on condition of anonymity, engineers have begun re-evaluating the C919’s flight-deck design to satisfy Part 25.1302 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR).
"Section 1302 is quite strict on human factors and necessary for FAA certification, but it’s not required by the CAAC,’’ he told AIN. ”So now there is a conflict between whether they have to meet 1302 requirements or not. If Comac wants to sell aircraft outside of China...there is always the constant debate of how much of the requirements they need to comply with coupled with how many design changes are necessary and how much money needs to be spent.’’
Comac’s challenges in meeting the certification procedures required to enable sale in the U.S. reflect a larger problem plaguing the aerospace manufacturer, namely technical know-how. While foreign experts in China transfer manufacturing knowledge and R&D capabilities, communication problems, misinterpretation of FAA requirements, and limited local skills have significantly delayed progress.
The challenges have become evident as the C919 continues to undergo further envelope expansion testing at its Shanghai facility and the team there encounters repeated setbacks due to disruptions in design changes and a shortage of local expertise.
"As always, they’re learning, which means it’s going to take longer,’’ said the source. “It’s not like you are working with Airbus or Boeing who can go through this process within an 18-month time span. You need to account for the learning curve.’’
While Comac slowly moves towards improving its overall technological capabilities, repeated delays and reliance on foreign assistance will remain for some time, raising doubts that the Chinese can develop an indigenous alternative to the C919’s CFM Leap-1C engines within a decade.
While joint ventures with foreign firms can serve as effective vehicles for knowledge transfer, foreign firms recognize the need to carefully safeguard their intellectual property and technologies, perhaps compromising the collaboration needed to meet Comac’s first-delivery target of 2021.