In about three years, according to current plans, Russia and China will each begin delivering a national narrowbody airliner, the Irkut MS-21 and Comac C919, respectively. And 6-8 years later, they may have a jointly developed widebody ready for service.

These plans are maturing as Comac continues to struggle with the C919. Challenged in obtaining FAA endorsement of the C919's intended Chinese certification, the manufacturer is raising the possibility of alternative approval from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

A feasibility study for the widebody will be finished within a few months, after which the program will be ready for launch, Mikhail Pogosyan, president of Irkut owner United Aircraft Corp. (UAC), tells Aviation Week. The target for entry into service is 2023-25. “The long-range widebody aircraft segment is quite interesting for us,” Pogosyan says. “But we should study the market very closely and define clearly the level of technology we need . . . to enter a very competitive market with a product that provides qualitatively new solutions.”

The widebody studies have focused on an aircraft rather like the Airbus A330, say industry executives in China. Comac thinks airlines will need a replacement for that Airbus type next decade. That implies competition with the 787, a seemingly daunting challenge, but the Russo-Chinese aircraft will have access to technology, especially for propulsion, more than a decade newer than that available to the Boeing type when the 787 was launched in 2004.

Pogosyan does not mention a specific Chinese partner for the widebody, but it must be Comac, with which the Russian state company signed an agreement in 2012 to study joint development of a widebody aircraft. The program, targeting domestic and export markets, calls for Chinese involvement from design to after-sales support. The Russian government's Aircraft 2020 program can support technological development, says Pogosyan. UAC estimates airlines globally will need 8,000 airliners in the 20 years to 2033, including 1,000 in China.

The MS-21 and C919 programs are moving ahead in parallel. Pogosyan says Irkut has begun building flight and static test prototypes of the MS-21; the government says the first flight is due at the end of 2015 and deliveries in 2017.

Comac is also aiming for the C919 to make its first flight by the end of 2015, which implies a 2017 entry into service, one year later than first planned, although industry officials close to the program would not be surprised by further slippage, to 2018. Supplier management has been a particular problem. “They need really more experienced program management, and they're poking around and trying to find that experience and bring that in-house,” says Chaker Chahrour, executive vice president of the C919's engine supplier, CFM.

Comac and suppliers have begun making detail parts for the first C919, Dang Tiehong, deputy general manager of Comac's sales and marketing department, told reporters at the Singapore Airshow last week. “Our current plan is to begin final assembly at the end of this year, and we will make our best effort to make the first flight by the end of next year.”

As the first C919 begins to come together late in 2014, the first operational unit of its ARJ21 regional jet sibling should be handed over to Chengdu Airlines, a carrier from southwestern China that belongs to Comac. Chengdu will then need some time to prepare for operations, which it has said will begin in April or May 2015, fully 13 years after program launch.

The C919 program originally relied on timely ARJ21 certification—by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) with FAA supervision—to pioneer U.S. acceptance of Chinese type certificates. But to keep C919 development moving ahead, the CAAC has had to act on that program without waiting for ARJ21 certification, with the result that if the FAA is to endorse the C919's Chinese certification, then it will have to retrospectively recognize years of CAAC work.

“It is not smooth sailing right now between the CAAC and FAA on when they come together,” says Chahrour. “It is a resources issue for the FAA,” he adds, referring to the effort that would be needed to review the CAAC's work on the C919. “They have to come to a deal where the CAAC does most of the work and the FAA is satisfied.” FAA endorsement of the C919 is an inter-government matter, Dang says, apparently referring to the same question of resources.

Dang and Comac CFO Tian Min raise the possibility of EASA endorsement of the type certificate instead. However, EASA is even less familiar with the CAAC's processes for commercial aircraft certification than the FAA.