China's homegrown jet

Workers put the finishing touches to a COMAC ARJ21-700 at a final assembly and manufacturing centre in Shanghai. China’s state-owned plane maker Comac said Wednesday it is ready to deliver the first regional airliner. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

A state-owned aircraft maker said Wednesday it is ready to deliver China's first homegrown regional airliner and should complete a bigger plane in 2018.

The first two of the ARJ21-700 regional jets have been completed for a Chinese carrier Chengdu Airlines, and are coming to the end of the certification process, according to Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd. The company said it has 252 orders.

China launched the ARJ21 project in 2002 in an attempt to break into the Western-dominated aircraft market. The plane was promised for 2007 but delivery was pushed back due to technical problems. The Chinese Civil Aviation Authority had hoped to partner with the FAA to get international certification for the plane, but that has not yet taken place.

Big market for planes

China is expected to become one of the world's biggest aircraft markets over the next two decades. Boeing Co. forecasts total demand at 5,580 planes worth a total of $780 billion.

The ARJ21-700 can seat 78 to 90 passengers depending on its configuration, with a range of 2,225 to 3,700 km. Comac said it successfully completed test flights in North America in March and April and has flown 13,000 km.

The company is targeting China's domestic market and flights to Southeast Asia.

 "We first want to develop our business in China and then gradually we will go to the international market," Comac executive Tian Min told reporters at Comac's assembly and manufacturing centre in Shanghai.

Comac's larger C919 is a single-aisle jet meant to compete with Boeing and Airbus Industrie. It can seat up to 168 passengers and has a planned range of 4,000 to 5,100 km.  

The C919 is an official initiative "for China to re-capture the value in aircraft manufacturing that currently goes offshore to Airbus and Boeing," said industry analyst Will Horton of CAPA Centre for Aviation. "With such a large objective, accomplishments will come gradually."

Orders from Ryanair, British Airways

The company has received 400 orders from 16 customers, including aircraft leasing company GE Capital Aviation Services. Low cost carrier Ryanair and British Airways have signed memorandums of understanding about their intention to purchase planes, Tian said.

He wouldn't disclose price but said developers were focused on controlling costs. Most orders have come from China's state-owned airline industry under government instructions to support the program.

"Global aviation remains pessimistic on the C919, given the ARJ21 delays," said Horton.

On May 15, the first front fuselage of a C919 was delivered by a supplier to Comac, Tian said. He said the plane will be assembled in the second half of 2014, its maiden flight is due at the end of 2015 and the first delivery to a customer is slated for 2018.

Longer term, Comac is cooperating with Russia to build a next-generation wide-body plane. The two sides signed a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to China. Tian said Comac is working on a feasibility study with Russia.

From its beginning in 2008, Comac has focused on developing the two passenger planes. It has grown from 3,800 employees to 8,300.