China finally has an indigenously designed airliner, following the issue of a type certificate for the Comac ARJ21-700 regional jet by the country’s civil aviation authority. For Comac, the importance of the step is not what it would be for most commercial aircraft manufacturers, shifting to revenue-earning production from budget-bleeding development. Instead, the key issue is that it will open the way for the state organization to gain experience beyond engineering, which is most of what it and its predecessors have been doing since 2002.

Since about the time Comac’s second aircraft—the 158-seat C919—was launched in 2008, the ARJ21 has increasingly looked like a practice run. While Comac is treating it as a commercial product, and says it has orders for 430 of the aircraft, the regional jet has become badly dated during the protracted development, losing competitiveness. Still, even with limited market prospects, the ARJ21 will be the means by which Comac gains experience in managing volume production and, above all, learns to support a jet transport in airline service.

And while Comac is working on an upgrade for the ARJ21, the end of the regional jet’s main development program must be releasing engineers for work on the C919 program—a much larger project with targets including efficiency levels comparable with those of the Airbus A320neo family and Boeing 737 MAX.

Certification of the ARJ21 follows more than 12 years of development, including six in flight-testing, and comes four decades after China began its first attempt at producing a jet airliner.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) issued the type certificate under Chapter 25 of the Chinese civil aviation regulations on Dec. 30. Comac, announcing the certification, says the CAAC is now examining the first aircraft intended for delivery to a customer. That customer will be Chengdu Airlines, which belongs to Comac and will help the manufacturer learn to support the type. Early last year, the aircraft was supposed to begin operations in April or May 2015, so the program will have taken 13 years from the launch of full-scale development to entry into service.

ARJ21 certification work began in 2003, the year after the program was launched. At the time, the Chinese government put little emphasis on civil aeronautics, so the ARJ21 enjoyed only modest funding. The Shanghai facilities of Avic, responsible for the program, had previously handled Chinese production of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80, the design of which was referred to—but not fully copied—by the ARJ21’s developers. Six years after the ARJ21 was launched, the Shanghai works was folded into Comac, which was split off from Avic and given strong state backing to develop the C919, now due to enter service in 2018. 

The ARJ21-700 seats 90 passengers in an all-economy cabin arrangement. A second version, the ARJ21-900, which has yet to be launched, is intended to seat 115. 

China attempted to develop a commercial aircraft, the Y-10, in the 1970s, but abandoned the program in the 1980s. A weather-beaten Y-10 prototype still stands on the grounds of Comac’s original Shanghai factory behind a sign that reads in Chinese and English “Never give up” (photo). Inspiring as it may be for the workers, the sign has probably been more useful in encouraging resolution in visiting officials who decide Comac’s funding. The last thing the manufacturer wants is for them to give up.

Before ARJ21, the only production Chinese airliner was the Y-7, a copy of the Antonov An-24 that Avic now builds in updated versions called MA60 and MA600. Avic is developing the MA700 turboprop airliner as a larger successor to the Y-7. 

Comac’s product-support people have been waiting for years for their chance; their preparations must have begun before the first ARJ21 flight in 2008. They are now, finally, moving to center stage, because Comac well understands this is its chance for sorting through the endless complications of keeping airline customers satisfied. 

The manufacturer says it has set up a support company that will provide flight training, parts, engineering technical service, publications, market and customer support, and flight operations support. The challenge is that the ARJ21, as the first product of a new manufacturer, is more likely to produce problems in service than, say, the latest version of the 737. And the people supporting it, for all their preparations, are mostly new to the task.

This underlines the role of the ARJ21 as an exercise to prepare the way for the C919 and later products. Comac has minimized the role of its customers as guinea pigs by testing the model first with Chengdu Airlines. If early operations of the ARJ21 prove to be troubled, the inconvenience will be felt in-house.  

China Merchants Bank Financial Leasing (CMB) will buy 30 Comac C919s under a memorandum of understanding signed at Airshow China at Zhuhai in November, where Comsys (Tianjin) Leasing said it intended to buy 20 ARJ21-700s.

A version of this article appears in the February 2-15, 2015 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.