Detail design of the Comac C919 narrowbody airliner is going ahead without immediate participation by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), which is declining to become involved until its certification processes win endorsement from the FAA, possibly late this year.

If the CAAC takes a tough attitude, it could insist that Comac slow down detail design, pending ARJ21 certification, says Chaker Chahrour, vice president of engine supplier CFM. “It is the single biggest risk in the schedule,” says the executive, who adds that Comac is throwing great resources at problems as they arise.

The C919 is now nearing the halfway point of its planned eight-year development period, with entry into service planned for 2016. Comac built spare time into the schedule but a senior program official says the spare time has now been used up, partly because the company found that managing suppliers was a lot harder than it expected. “The schedule is now very tight,” he says.

Some of those suppliers have expressed doubts that Comac will achieve its target of a first flight in 2014. But Chahrour is less worried. “I believe they are determined to fly that airplane in 2014,” he says.

Comac President Jin Zhuanglong says that, as detail design proceeds, the Chengdu civil aircraft plant managed by Avic Aircraft has begun making parts for the first prototype. Chengdu is building the C919’s nose.

As to the CAAC, “we want them to become involved as soon as possible,” says the senior program official. This is not happening because the FAA, validating the Chinese authority’s certification abilities, is insisting that the CAAC first complete certification of the Comac ARJ21 regional jet, which is being used as the test case in the process. The ARJ21 is not expected to be certified until late this year.

There might yet be a bit more slack in the schedule, because Comac has allowed two years for flight testing. Some program participants have thought that that was a year more than needed. But another, noting the four years that the ARJ21 is taking in flight testing, thinks Comac was smart to give itself so much time.

At the Singapore air show, Comac announced a contract for 20 C919s from BOC Aviation, a Singapore-based lessor that belongs to the Chinese government’s Bank of China. The deal took “orders” to 235, says the company. But Comac is loose with its definition of orders, partly due to ambiguities in translation. Not all 235 are actually under order — many are options — and, more to the point, people involved with some of the deals say the contracts have little binding effect. A manager of one company that is supposedly ordering the aircraft says that his contract does not even specify how many will be bought, even though there was a number in the press release.

Comac appears reluctant to sign genuine orders because, unsure of its ability to deliver on time, it does not want to compensate for lateness. Yet its ability to push ahead with C919 development with few real orders, if any, reflects its ability to deploy the resources of the Chinese state in pursuit of a national objective: building commercial aircraft.

BOC is ultimately controlled by Beijing, like all customers except GE Capital Aviation Services, which is linked to the engine supplier. The CAAC says it encourages Chinese airlines to give priority to buying and operating domestically produced aircraft.