COMAC recently announced that the ARJ-21 certification and entry into service will be delayed by an additional 1-2 years, and not enter service until 2015 at the earliest. Having flown a prototype a couple of years ago, this has become an exceptionally long certification process, an indicator that things are not going well for this airplane that looks like a copy of an early DC-9-10.
In its statement, COMAC admitted that the delay is “due to inexperience in certification in terms of methods and infrastructure” indicating that it is not yet ready to certify aircraft to western standards. As the ARJ-21 is widely considered a “learning airplane” and a “stepping stone” to the more sophisticated and modern C919, one would normally dismiss such news.
The FAA however, with an application for the ARJ-21 in hand, has indicated that it will not certify the C919 until the ARJ-21 certification is completed. That presents a problem, as ARJ-21 remains overweight, and initial engineering documentation is not up to global standards used for certification. As a result, COMAC has been forced back to the drawing board to test and certify some components, as well as complete the required structural tests before the C919 can even be considered by US regulators.
Of course, China could pursue C919 certification in China and via JAA in Europe in the interim, but the recent letter of intent by folks planning a new airline using the old Eastern name and livery makes US certification an imperative. COMAC needs to quickly learn how to certify an aircraft.
Does this open further opportunities for Bombardier, and its cooperative agreements with COMAC? Bombardier, currently occupied in certifying the CSeries, has experience with the Dash-8, CRJ, and multiple business and specialty aircraft, and could provide guidance and expertise to COMAC if a mechanism could be devised to save face for the Chinese. Does COMAC need to hire Bombardier to rescue the ARJ-21 program?
The Bottom Line: Without some help, the ARJ-21 delay could roll over into the C919 program. While China is patient, the market will not be so kind. COMAC needs to aggressively move forward to ensure the C919 does not fall years behind schedule, like its predecessor, if it wants to be counted among the A,B, C of aircraft manufacturers.