Delayed take-off: China cautious on large aircraft programme

Wed Oct 2, 2013 4:56pm EDT
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By Siva Govindasamy and Fang Yan

SINGAPORE/BEIJING Oct 3 (Reuters) - China's largest domestically produced aircraft may not enter service until early next decade, a delay that gives dominant rivals Boeing Co and Airbus time to launch their upgraded single-aisle planes first.

The Comac C919, which will compete with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 family of aircraft, was scheduled for its first flight next year, but that has now been delayed until 2015, which pushes the first delivery to around 2017 or 2018, local media have reported.

Officials from The Commercial Aircraft Corp of China Ltd (Comac) told Reuters there was a new timeline, but declined to give details. Sources from the state-owned firm and its Western suppliers of systems said the Chinese company is still getting to grips with the complex project.

China is keen to develop a successful commercial aircraft to prove it can match the United States and Europe, and to help transform its economy into one that has high-tech industries such as aerospace. But it has been held back by inexperience, a shortage of local aerospace design and engineering talent, and a lack of home-grown companies with the technology to help drive the project.

Aerospace industry executives and Comac's competitors expect the company to eventually threaten the Airbus/Boeing duopoly, with the C919 competing in the 150-200-seat single-aisle aircraft category that accounts for 64 percent of global fleets.

But a delay means the C919 will arrive several years after the upgraded and re-engined A320neo and Boeing 737 Max enter the market. While a C919 may cost less to buy, the fuel efficiencies and lower maintenance costs of the Airbus and Boeing planes should make them cheaper to operate.

"The C919 will not be as technologically advanced as the A320 and 737, but that's not China's aim for now. It wants to learn how to build a viable and safe aircraft, and become more competitive in the long-term. It's learning from what Airbus did to Boeing in the 1970s," said a person at a Western supplier who meets senior Comac officials regularly.

Luo Ronghuai, a vice-president at Comac, said the C919 programme could suffer "setbacks", and noted that experienced companies including Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier all delayed the first flight of their recent jets.   Continued...