When China announced plans to develop a second airliner to boost the country’s economic competitiveness, it was widely believed that these efforts would crack the long-standing duopoly that Airbus and Boeing have maintained in the narrowbody commercial jet market. More than a decade later, the C919 program continues to be hampered by weak oversight and manufacturing delays, sparking concerns about its ability to gain certification in Western markets.
According to a source working closely with Comac who spoke with AIN on condition of anonymity, one of the long-standing impediments constraining progress is the integration of avionics components and its subsystems in the flight deck. This challenge reflects a larger concern about the company’s ability to achieve effective coordination across component teams.
“The C919 is still fixing its design problems, so it’s not flying a lot. They haven’t really come to grips with some of the issues because everybody is working in a vacuum. They can’t integrate the plane because no one is talking to each other,” he told AIN. “Everyone wants to act as a soloist and get all the glory, but you can’t have a bunch of soloists and build an airplane.”
Concerns about avionics integration were initially raised when China began developing its first indigenously developed regional jetliner, the ARJ21. Today, engineers continue to make incremental improvements to the flight deck’s design. A new layout on the regional jet now features a better-organized grouping of switches, buttons, instruments, and displays to simplify workload and increase situational awareness. Designers expect the new layout, successfully tested on the ARJ21’s flight simulator, to significantly reduce the amount of pilot training required on the type.
Unlike the ARJ-21, which uses commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products in the cockpit, the C919 is working with a complete avionics system design with key components sourced from western suppliers. Aviage Systems, a 50-50 joint venture between GE Aviation and Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), supplies an integrated modular avionics system, while Honeywell Aerospace supplies the aircraft’s fly-by-wire system with HonFei flight controls as well as the braking system under a joint venture with Boyun Aviation Systems. Collins Aerospace, under joint ventures established with China Electronics Technology Avionics Company and AVIC, supplies the C919’s communication, navigation, and integrated surveillance systems.
For foreign suppliers, the cost of doing business in China means entering into a joint venture with local firms to participate in tenders for major aerospace components and systems. Indeed, since the government’s launch of its industry-building “Made in China 2025” policy program, joint ventures with foreign firms can serve as effective vehicles for knowledge transfer and R&D capabilities.
However, simply throwing more money at the C919 will not make it globally competitive. While foreign firms have contributed major components to the program, Chinese teams on the factory floor are tasked with system-wide integration. Not only does this require highly coordinated teams—a concept that Comac allegedly struggles with—it also requires a fair degree of technical know-how to bring its ambitious C919 project in line with FAA and EASA requirements.
“If they are going to sell this aircraft outside of China, they will need FAA and EASA approval, and both are difficult to get; the teams don’t get this…both the FAA and EASA said they are going to help but they’re also shaking their heads. There are so many problems with integration, they don’t know where to start,” said the source.
Meanwhile, the ARJ-21 is also facing its own set of issues as it moves towards market competitiveness. While production has remained relatively unchanged, with one aircraft rolling off the line once every four to six weeks, the new jets are destined for Chinese operators. If there is going to be a place for the ARJ-21 on the international stage, the aircraft needs to be “Western-ready.” At least one year is required to make the jet marketable to operators outside of China.
“You need to have the systems in English ready to go. Operating manuals need to be in English and up to international standards; mechanics, pilots, and other personnel supporting the aircraft delivery and operations also need to be taught in English,” he told AIN. It is imperative to have a global support system that inspires confidence.”
The challenge of producing English language manuals has also spilled over into the development of the C919, where manuals are supposed to be written in English first; however, according to the source, this plan is not widely implemented. Concerns about a lack of an aviation safety management system (SMS) were also recently raised after the tail of an ARJ-21 struck the factory’s hangar door.
Despite the internal challenges, both aircraft serves as a testament to China’s ambitions to advance its standing in the aerospace manufacturing value chain. It may be a steep climb up but its commitment is unwavering when it comes to playing the long game.