By Siva Govindasamy and Fang Yan
SINGAPORE/BEIJING (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 program could suffer "setbacks", and noted that experienced companies including Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier all delayed the first flight of their recent jets.
"We have an internal plan, but it is too early to announce it," Luo said at the Aviation Expo show in Beijing last week, when asked about the timeline and the reasons for the delays. "We want the best products and technologies from our suppliers, and that has caused some delay. We've used new technologies. As such, it's hard to say whether there will be some setbacks."
Comac has received commitments to buy 380 of the C919 planes, mostly from Chinese airlines and leasing companies backed by banks such as Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Bank of Communications.
The company is deliberately proceeding cautiously in the development stage so the C919 can meet rigorous international testing and certification standards, said people familiar with Comac's strategy.
It is working with Western aviation suppliers including engine manufacturer CFM, a joint venture between GE Aviation and French firm Snecma; Honeywell; United Technologies subsidiary Goodrich; Rockwell Collins; Liebherr; Zodiac Aerospace; Meggitt, Eaton; and Parker Aerospace, those people said.
The suppliers are sending components to be integrated on to a C919 "iron bird", a ground-based engineering test-bed meant to check systems and flight controls and identify any abnormalities early in the development phase. Once these tests are completed next year, that should add some clarity on the timeline for the plane's entry into service.
Comac has hired dozens of young Chinese aerospace engineering graduates - many of whom attended U.S. or European universities - and is trying to attract Western aerospace professionals, said those familiar with the firm's strategy.
"Comac simply doesn't have the expertise or the number of engineers and designers that Boeing or Airbus have. It is really trying to overcome that challenge," said an executive of one of the suppliers who has visited Comac's Shanghai offices.
The company is also learning from the problems faced by its ARJ-21 regional jet program. The first ARJ-21 was rolled out in December 2007 and had its first flight a year later, but the certification process has taken more than five years. The plane is now scheduled to be delivered late next year.
Officials from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are conducting a parallel certification of the ARJ-21, and that internationally recognized certification will go a long way towards helping the aircraft be accepted more widely and sold to more airlines globally. The C919 is likely to have a parallel FAA certification, too, but Luo said it will not take as long as the ARJ-21.
Last week, Comac predicted industry sales of 4,346 regional aircraft and 21,200 single-aisle aircraft globally over the next 20 years. It did not say how many of these would be ARJ-21s and C919s. Airbus last month nudged up its forecast for global demand for short- and medium-haul jets - like the A320 and Boeing 737 - to 20,242 over the next 20 years.
With Chinese passenger traffic expected to grow at 7 percent a year over that period, Comac projects China could take delivery of 3,602 single aisle-aircraft.
(Editing by Emily Kaiser and Ian Geoghegan)