China and Russia have recommitted to keep their joint CR929 wide-body airliner program afloat, with significant progress recently being made in both countries on a stop-and-start US$10 billion venture that aims ultimately to compete with Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
China’s state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) have both recently reaffirmed their resolve to get the jumbo plane off the ground, despite uncertain prospects for the long-haul travel market.
This comes after previous reports claimed that a long-running tussle for more control between Chinese and Russian aviation officials as well as disagreements over the transfer of core technologies threatened to ground the plane before it ever launched.
Comac and Beijing’s embassy in Moscow have confirmed that the CR929’s core suppliers have been shortlisted since March.
Subsidiaries and joint ventures under the umbrella of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) are penciled in for many of the contracts. Their parts and components will be made to standards hammered out by Russian engineers, according to news reports.
Russia’s Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute and UAC have recently reported successful completion of wind tunnel testing on scaled CR929 models, with their performance reportedly far exceeding aerodynamic design parameters.
The CR929 is being closely watched in the West to see how the Beijing-Moscow tech and engineering alliance plays out in the skies. With a maximum take-off weight of 245 tons, the 63.3-meter long-haul plane will be able to fly 440 passengers in its maximum seating configuration and travel 12,000 kilometers non-stop at speeds of over 900 kilometers per hour.
China News Service cited Comac as saying in March that Chinese technicians would work out the design specifications for, among others, the two-aisle airliner’s fairing, vertical and horizontal tail wings as well as its avionics systems, while Russia would look after the configuration of its fuselage, wings and control consoles.
The official news agency hinted in its report that China would be “a quick learner” in the joint endeavor. It also stressed that, contrary to “biased” Western media coverage, China’s agreement to foot most of the cost overruns and marketing and certification expenditures was not a “quid pro quo” for access to more Russian technologies and engines but rather part of a broad plan to catapult Chinese aviation and aerospace into the global elite club.
In April, Comac talked up the prospect for a maiden flight in 2023 and, building on the two countries’ camaraderie, mass manufacturing of the jetliner by around 2026. The project was first launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2016.
Marketing and sales of the planes could be a challenge as Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on the global aviation business and the future of long-haul, international travel. Chinese and Russian airlines have already hit the brakes on new jumbo jet purchases with the global travel downturn.
Aviation data cruncher and consultancy Oliver Wyman noted in a recent report that Chinese carriers would have a combined fleet of 779 wide-body jets in 2029, around the time the CR929 is tipped to enter full-scale commercial service.
Chen Yingchun, the CR929’s chief Chinese designer, has predicted 1,000 CR929 jetliners will be made and sold between the mid-2020s to 2045. He said the CR929 aims to wrest 10% of the global market for wide-body jets over the next 20 years, a space now dominated by Boeing and Airbus.
Its short-term prospects look less rosy as Chinese state-owned airlines stop or slash long-haul services and instead pivot to more single-aisle planes on trunk routes between Chinese cities.
China Southern, for instance, has plans to mothball and pension off its A380 superjumbo and furlough its crews. The airline’s narrow-body planes continue to fly domestic routes, helping China’s largest airline by fleet size clawback passengers and revenues lost to the pandemic.
That’s buoyant news for Comac’s narrow-body C919 jet, which aims to take on Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s A320. The homemade jet’s airworthiness certification and first commercial flights are expected within this year.