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China learns building planes isn't easy

Visitors inspect the C919 prototype at an aviation exhibition during the Zhuhai Airshow, China © China learns building planes isn't easy Visitors inspect the C919 prototype at an aviation exhibition during the Zhuhai Airshow, China

Chinese planemaker COMAC is learning the hard way as it tries to compete with heavyweights Airbus and Boeing in developing a narrow-body aircraft, apparently exposed to the perils of the supply chain and program management issues.

Advance orders for Commercial Aircraft Corp of China Ltd's C919 have slowed to a trickle, with the company setting a modest target of 30 orders for this year. Total orders for China's only homegrown commercial jet last year stood at 400.

The C919's first flight was originally scheduled for 2014, but it has been delayed until end-2015 at the earliest as the state-owned company copes with the difficulties of embarking on an aircraft development program virtually from scratch.

A senior official at engine-maker CFM, the sole supplier of engines for the C919, says most of COMAC's difficulties can simply be put down to inexperience.

COMAC, founded in 2008, is tasked with assembling China's first large commercial aircraft.

"I think they need really more experienced program management and they're poking around and trying to find that experience and bring that in-house," Chaker Chahrour, executive vice-president at CFM, told reporters at the Singapore Airshow.

"Building an airplane is not an easy task. It requires a lot of work with a lot of suppliers. I think they have some difficulty with some suppliers and bringing them all to the same party at the same time has been a little bit difficult, and that is why they announced a delay to the first flight."

The order and delivery of parts for new aircraft is highly complicated, and delays or other technical problems can bring development to standstill.

The likes of Airbus and Boeing know this only too well, and have program management teams dedicated to ensure the production process runs smoothly.

Shanghai-based COMAC is keen to stamp itself as a global player in the narrow-body market which accounts for the largest portion of the global passenger aircraft fleet.

Most commitments so far, however, have come from Chinese airlines and leasing firms.

Among those with orders are Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines , and leasing firms linked to Chinese financial institutions such as Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Bank of Communications.

"Although there have not been many orders recently, we have had steady growth in orders. We have a new sales target of not fewer than 30 new orders this year," said Dang Tiehong, deputy general manager of COMAC's sales and marketing department.

"We have a price range in mind, although we can't reveal it. But the price will give us a competitive edge over our competitors."

Industry sources tell Reuters that unlike orders that are placed with Airbus and Boeing, COMAC buyers do not have to put down a deposit and the price negotiations start only after the first flight of the C919.

The delivery of the first aircraft is scheduled around 2016-2017, but many in the industry expect that could slip to as late as early next decade.

Despite the C919's teething problems, Chahrour says the Chinese are "coming up to speed tremendously fast".

"It is a different from the two experienced airframers, Boeing and Airbus," he said. "We have to work on the C919 program with different mindsets than we do with Boeing and Airbus, given the level of experience.

"But I think the dates that they announced are pretty solid and they will meet those dates, and they will be flying some time in 2015."

CFM, a joint venture between GE Aviation and Snecma, has plenty of experience in the field by virtue of being the sole supplier of engines for the Boeing 737 and more than half of the A320 market.

COMAC's other suppliers include Honeywell, United Technologies subsidiary Goodrich, Rockwell Collins ,Liebherr, Zodiac Aerospace, Meggitt, Eaton, and Parker Aerospace.


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