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China’s first domestic regional jet ARJ21-700 arrives at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport after making its first flight from Chengdu to Shanghai earlier this year. AFP
China’s first domestic regional jet ARJ21-700 arrives at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport after making its first flight from Chengdu to Shanghai earlier this year. AFP

Headwinds could divert China’s first civil jet to frontier markets

China has developed the county’s first-ever commercial passenger jet, but finding buyers for what one aviation expert described as a “stunningly obsolete” aircraft outside its own command economy is proving a lofty challenge.

Some suspect its state-owned manufacturer could be using China’s political clout to pressure airlines in aid-dependant Asian and African countries – including Cambodia – to place orders.

The ARJ21 Xiangfeng made its maiden commercial flight two months ago with Chengdu Airlines, one of the manufacturer’s subsidiaries, delivering 70 passengers from Chengdu to Shanghai on the 90-seat regional jet.

Though nine years behind schedule, the two-hour flight signified a giant leap for Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (COMAC), marking the aviation firm’s tenuous entry into the ring with other regional jet manufacturers, including Bombardier and Embraer. The company is also developing its C919, a larger passenger jet aircraft that it hopes will one day challenge the popular Boeing B737 and Airbus A320.

COMAC executives did not respond to interview requests. However, Wu Xingshi, the ARJ21’s former chief designer, recently told Chinese media outlets that the development of the first commercial passenger jet “offers valuable experience for China’s aviation industry, especially in the large civil aircraft area”.

To date, COMAC has received orders for more than 300 ARJ21s from about 20 airlines, nearly all of them Chinese. Its executives have also flogged the short-haul regional jet in international markets, clinching sales to a handful of small Asian and African airlines.

Among these are the state-owned flagship carriers of Laos and Myanmar, which have agreed to purchase two aircraft each.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at aviation research firm Teal Group, said the deeply flawed design of the ARJ21 makes these purchase orders extremely suspect.

“It has been many years since the aviation business has seen such a stunningly obsolete product as the ARJ21,” he said. “It has no place in the world commercial aircraft market, except as a political tool.”

While Chinese aviation experts have praised the ARJ21’s innovation, Western critics claim the technology used in the Chinese aircraft is decades old, with the model amounting to little more than a scaled-down version of the McDonnell Douglas MD-90, an American aircraft that went into service in 1993. The similarities are hardly surprising as the ARJ21 is built using MD-90 manufacturing tooling in Chinese factories once contracted to assemble the American aircraft.

The ARJ21 is equipped with American engines and avionics, but there are lingering concerns over the quality and performance of what is widely seen as an inferior modified clone. The budget-priced $30 million aircraft has yet to receive US FAA certification, a precondition to fly in the major aviation markets.

“Even if it was very heavily discounted, used Embraer or Bombardier jets will always be better and less expensive, unless the ARJ21 was basically free,” said Aboulafia. “An airline would only purchase it for political reasons, or if some other inducement or incentive was provided to get an airline manager to specify a seriously bad aircraft.”

Robert Michelson, principal research engineer emeritus at Georgia Tech Research Institute, said he expects COMAC to look to less-regulated aviation markets where secondary and tertiary airlines operate on razor-thin margins.

“I think that the acceptance of the ARJ21 is going to come down to relative cost in smaller markets where an airline’s reputation may be less important than the bottom line,” he said. “I’d be surprised to see major airlines add ARJ21s to their fleets until it has an established track record.”

One additional disincentive for airlines is that they will need to find pilots licensed to fly the new Chinese-built aircraft. Pilot licences are model-specific, and pilots may be reluctant to invest in expensive training on an unproven jet model, especially as regulations prohibit them from operating multiple models at the same time.

COMAC executives have been touring the region to pitch the new aircraft. Rodante Ponio, manager for commercial services at Bassaka Air Ltd, a local airline that currently operates two Airbus A320-200s, said Bassaka received a visit last year, but the new model was not discussed.

“COMAC visited us last year, but [said] nothing about the ARJ21 commercial jet,” he said, adding: “At present, our search for additional aircraft is focused on the type of aircraft we are now operating.”

Cambodia Bayon Airlines, a locally registered subsidiary of China’s state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), also said it received a visit from COMAC’s sales team. A Bayon representative confirmed that the airline was considering purchasing ARJ21 aircraft for its fleet, though no price has been set.

Bayon currently operates two Chinese-manufactured Xi’an MA60 twin turboprop aircraft and previously announced plans to purchase up to 18 more, as well as 10 Airbus A320s for longer international routes.

The MA60, like the ARJ21, lacks FAA certification, but has had 15 years of flying time in frontier African and Asian markets to build a reputation as a relatively cost-effective short-haul aircraft. It has, however, had its share of safety problems.

Yet markets with a history of MA60 operations should be more receptive to the ARJ21, and – China hopes – eventually its bigger cousin, the C919.

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