Brunei's GallopAir, buyer of COMAC planes, eyes year-end launch

SINGAPORE (Reuters): Brunei-based airline startup GallopAir hopes to start operations by the end of 2024 should Brunei's aviation regulator approve the regional jet made by Chinese state-owned planemaker COMAC it wants to fly in time, the carrier's chief executive said.

In an interview on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow, GallopAir CEO Cham Chi said COMAC was exploring setting up maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities in Brunei as it seeks more international customers for home-grown planes competing with the dominant Western manufacturers Airbus and Boeing.

COMAC declined to be interviewed by Reuters.

GallopAir, backed by Chinese investors, currently has no aircraft. However it last year placed the first overseas order for COMAC's C919 narrow-body airliner and the second foreign order for the Chinese planemaker's smaller and older ARJ21 regional jet.

The only C919s currently in operation are four with China Eastern Airlines. Outside China, Indonesian low-cost carrier TransNusa operates two ARJ21 aircraft.

"When we started negotiating with COMAC they said if a customer can order more than 30 aircraft we can configure to put MRO in the customer country," Chi said.

The aviation industry has been watching with curiosity whether a country outside China will allow operations by the single-aisle C919. The C919's design - a 158-192 seat challenger to Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX 8 models - is only certified in China.

Chi said his airline was working with COMAC and Brunei's civil air regulator to get the air operator certificate and type certificate approval needed for GallopAir to start operating the ARJ21 jet out of the tiny country that shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia.

But starting a regulatory approvals process for the C919 was at least two to three years away, Chi said, adding he wanted to see more flying hours from the plane before GallopAir takes deliveries.

Chi said GallopAir was working with COMAC's customer service arm to source COMAC-trained staff required by Brunei authorities for the approvals process.

China-based Shaanxi Tianju Investment Group is an investor in GallopAir, which will be only the second Brunei-based airline operator after national carrier Royal Brunei Airlines.

GallopAir has said it intends to provide flight services in the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) and act as a feeder for Royal Brunei.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Brenda Goh; Editing by Jamie Freed) - Reuters

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