China’s push to challenge Boeing and Airbus has yet to be crowned with success
Development of China’s C919 narrow-body passenger aircraft, already at least five years behind schedule, is progressing slower than expected as the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) grapples with a number of technical issues that severely limit test flights, sources familiar with the situation told Reuters.
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Delays are common in complex aerospace programs, but particularly slow progress in the aircraft industry is a potential embarrassment for China, which has invested heavily in its first major attempt to squeeze Boeing and Airbus into the global jet market..
The most recent of these problems was due to a mathematical error..
COMAC engineers calculated the forces that would be imposed on the aircraft’s twin engines in flight – known in the industry as loads – and sent the inaccurate data to the engine manufacturer, CFM International. Four people familiar with the matter told Reuters about this. As a result, there may be a need for reinforcement of the motor and its body, likely due to COMAC, although another source denies the possibility of any modifications.
This and other technical and structural disruptions meant that by early December, after more than 2.5 years of flight testing, COMAC had completed less than a fifth of the 4,200 hours in the air required for final approval by the PRC Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC). Two people close to the project told Reuters about this..
COMAC, which has largely kept the development of the C919 in secret since 2008, rarely divulges its goals. Company spokesman Yang Yang told Chinese state media in September that he expects certification from the country’s regulators in 2-3 years, without providing any further details. The company’s previously publicly announced target was the end of 2020. Other COMAC officials said they are aiming for certification and delivery in 2021.
COMAC did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on this topic. CFM, a joint venture between General Electric (GE Aviation) and French Safran, declined to comment.
COMAC has yet to finalize the calculations and data to send to the engine manufacturer, which are key to ensuring the engine does not fail under heavy loads, one source told Reuters. Another said that ultimate load calculations are often generated during development..
But given the uncertainty, there is no guarantee that COMAC will achieve its stated goals for 2021-2022, people close to the program told Reuters..
«Things don’t always work out as planned, but I hope COMAC slows down a bit and tries not to drive the horses.», – one source familiar with the engine problem told Reuters. «Otherwise, there will be many problems later.».
The miscalculation of the engine does not reflect a lack of theoretical understanding – China has been sending humans into space for nearly two decades. But it illustrates the national aerospace manufacturer’s lack of experience in designing and building commercial aircraft..
The C919 is designed to compete with the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus 320neo aircraft. After Boeing and Airbus entered into agreements to acquire aircraft manufactured by Embraer and Bombardier, China’s COMAC is now effectively the third alternative on the market for aircraft with more than 100 seats..
Currently, most industry forecasters expect the long cyclical boom in commercial jet demand this year to subside as business confidence erodes amid geopolitical tensions, meaning an aircraft that debuts in 2021 or 2022 is likely not to receive orders in the coming years.
Beijing has made the C919 project an integral part of its initiative «Made in China 2025» (Made in China 2025), aimed at catching up in sophisticated technology and helping the country become self-sufficient.
The effort attracted the attention of US federal prosecutors, who in 2018 accused a group of Chinese intelligence officers, hackers, and company employees of infiltrating the networks of 13 aerospace manufacturers around the world, including a company whose description is CFM, in order to steal sensitive data that can help China build a jet engine. China denies any involvement in the hack.
Some analysts believe that Beijing can afford not to get upset if the C919 cannot immediately start competing in international markets, as the Chinese government could "to ask" their domestic airlines to buy them.
Chinese government carriers and leasing companies account for the vast majority of the 815 pre-orders that COMAC requested for the C919. So far, the only foreign buyer is the leasing company GECAS, owned by General Electric. Few of the orders have been completed.
«The real mission of the C919 is to conquer a domestic market dominated by two of its foreign competitors», – said by Jean-Francois Dufour (Jean-François Dufour), Principal Analyst DCA Chine-Analyze. «After 10–15 years next generation C919 or other models developed by COMAC could become real competitors on the global stage».