On 5th May, the Chinese Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) successfully conducted its first test flight from Shanghai. This is a major step for China in its ambition to compete directly with the Airbus A320 series and the Boeing 737. The plane will be able to carry 68 passengers over 5.550 km and should enter service in 2020 with China Eastern on domestic and regional flights.
While this plane is celebrated as a “Made-in-China” jet, COMAC was able to build its C919 using components and systems (e.g. flight control, power, lighting, cockpit control) from at least 15 foreign partners such as FACC AG, Honeywell, Parker Aerospace, UTC Aerospace Systems, Arconic, Liebherr-Aerospace, Eaton, and CFM International. Tapping into the supply chains of Airbus and Boeing allows COMAC to benefit from many of the technical solutions of making a modern commercial jet from scratch and builds up the company’s expertise for future designs.
The development of the C919 answers China’s critical needs of aircraft (over 6,800 according to Boeing’s estimates) valued at more than $1 trillion by 2035. Since 2015, China Southern Airlines already ordered more than $15 billion of new aircraft from Airbus and Boeing. However, the plane can currently only be operated in China as safety regulators in Europe and in the United States still have to certify the plane. The previous COMAC ARJ-21 plane has not received the American certification and therefore remains used for internal Chinese flights.
As regards market uptake, COMAC says it already has 570 orders from 23 buyers. But those have almost entirely come from Chinese companies and a couple of small overseas air carriers with links to China. A notable exception is an order for 20 planes from General Electric (Capital Aviation Services) which is also a big supplier to the C919 program. Some European airlines could eventually be interested in the plane in the future as competition in Europe intensifies and they are looking beyond the traditional suppliers to keep costs down. Six years ago, Ryanair signed a Memorandum of Understanding with COMAC “to participate in discussions on the development“ of the C919, which is designed to carry 150-200 passengers. After the test of the C919, Ryanair confirmed its interest in the plane so long as a 199-seat version becomes available “and is competitively priced”.
Nevertheless, China new aircraft is not considered as efficient and reliable as the current generation of Boeings and Airbuses. Although the plane represents a new challenger for aircraft sales, Airbus and Boeing, increasingly dependent on Chinese airlines for sales as well as on Chinese suppliers for parts, welcomed its arrival. Boeing which plans to build a facility in China, congratulated COMAC on the development of the C919 while Airbus – which already assembles A320s at a plant in Tianjin – said the competition would be good for the industry.
COMAC is already looking at the future with the design and manufacturing of a wide-body jet that would compete with larger planes like the Boeing 747 and the Airbus 340. Steven Lien, the president for Asia at Honeywell’s aerospace division, said that Russia and China were in the final stages of negotiating a plan to jointly design and produce it.