Will the West’s regulatory and certification hurdles eventually ground Beijing’s sky-high ambition to fly and market its homemade passenger airliner C919 overseas?

Beijing’s efforts to launch the C919, a narrow-bodied, medium-haul twin-jet airliner, to poach business off Boeing’s 737s and Airbus’ 320s, are gaining speed with successful test flights of a third C919 prototype at the end of 2018.

The first and second C919s made their maiden flights in May and December 2017 respectively. They are currently undergoing a series of tests at various airports across China, and three more prototypes will soar into the sky this year.

The first prototype of the C919 is seen on the apron of Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. Photo: Handout

Despite making headway with its own C919 trials, the state-owned plane maker Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) cannot control the speed of regulatory approval by US and European aviation authorities.

It is reported that Comac has hit the buffers in bringing its C919 project in line with the US Federal Aviation Administration’s technical requirements.

Aviation International News, a US-based aviation data cruncher and news portal, cited a source familiar with the matter as saying that Chinese engineers had begun re-evaluating the C919’s flight-deck design to make it conform to relevant clauses of US federal aviation regulations, one of the many prerequisites to secure FAA certification.

AIN also reported in October that unlike the FAA’s approval regime, the China Civil Aviation Administration’s certification process did not regulate a plane’s flight-deck design.

Comac wants to sell the CR919 outside China and for it to fly beyond China’s airspace, a stated goal from Day 1 of the plane’s conception. To reach that end, Chinese engineers and cadres will have to dig their way through the US approval travails and invest money to make design changes to the plane’s flight deck accordingly.

It is said that communication problems, misinterpretation of the FAA’s requirements and limited local expertise have significantly delayed the progress.

“It’s not like you are working with Airbus or Boeing who can go through this process within a [usual] 18-month time frame. You need to factor in the learning curve” when it comes to the C919 as well as Comac technicians, the AIN source said.

China's home-grown C919 passenger jet at Pudong International Airport before its maiden flight. Photo: Reuters, Aly Song
Engines, flight controls and even tires are all foreign products on China’s indigenous C919 jet. Photo: Reuters

Comac also hinges on foreign assistance in developing an indigenous alternative to the C919’s CFM Leap-1C turbofan engine, yet its foreign suppliers recognize the need to safeguard their intellectual property and technologies.

Both Pratt & Whitney and General Electric offered to provide engine designs for the C919, and Aviation Industry Corp of China’s Commercial Aircraft Engine Co has also been tasked with developing an indigenous engine known as the ACAE CJ-1000A.

The locally developed engine had its first power-on last May in Shanghai, but delays due to technical issues have dampened Comac’s hope to use it to power the C919 on its maiden commercial flight with China Eastern Airlines in 2021.

While the airframe is entirely made in China, most systems are provided by Western-Chinese joint ventures, such as Honeywell for its flight controls and wheels and brakes and Michelin for tires.

The C919 is mainly constructed with aluminum alloys featuring supercritical wings and is designed to fly 156 to 168 passengers in a normal seating configuration up to 5,555 kilometers at 834km/h.