China’s state-controlled airplane manufacturer, Comac (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China), has big ambitions to take on the Boeing-Airbus global duopoly.
Boeing and Airbus have both been competing heavily in the lucrative and growing Chinese commercial aviation market—the second largest market after the U.S., with 670 million passengers in 2018. Some estimates predict that the market will need 7,400 new planes in the next two decades to keep up with demand. But Comac intends to compete along with the two competitors.
For a long time, however, Comac has lagged far behind the two global aerospace giants—and it’s a steep hill to climb for any company that wants to compete with them. It takes billions of dollars, state-of-the-art engineering and design acumen, an extensive logistics and supply chain network, and the will to stick to a project over the long haul to create a new commercial aircraft that might compete effectively with Boeing and Airbus aircraft.
But if there’s anything China is known for, it’s a willingness to play the long game. And Comac has a distinct advantage in being state owned: it isn’t beholden to customers or quarterly earnings calls to stay afloat. The Chinese government seems content to fund the company as it labors to catch up to its Western competitors, absorbing short-term losses to achieve long-term objectives. In fact, earlier this year Beijing launched a government plan to promote the use of Chinese-manufactured passenger jets—essentially mandating that Chinese airlines buy Chinese planes.
But now the pressure is on Comac to deliver. The manufacturer has three aircraft in production or development.
ARJ21 Regional Jet
This jet was the first Chinese jetliner to be put into commercial use in 2016. The ARJ21 is a single-aisle regional jet with a 78 to 90 seat capacity and a flight range of 3,700 kilometers. The $38 million jet is a close copy of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80, which was once produced in China.
Its closest competition is the Airbus A220 and the Embraer E-Jet family (now owned by Boeing).
Comac has delivered 15 ARJ21-700s to customer Chengdu Airlines and to Genghis Khan Airlines. And following the government’s “buy Chinese” decree, China’s big three carriers—Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines—each placed an order for 35 aircraft to be delivered between 2020 and 2040.
In all, 596 aircraft have been ordered, with about 200 in production. Comac recently opened a second assembly line in its Shanghai factory to ramp up production.
“The market for the ARJ21 is better than we expected,” said Yang Yang, Comac’s deputy general manager of marketing and sales. “With a growing demand from customers, we will be able to expand the annual capacity to about 50 in total.” Yang added that Comac is looking to export the plane to Southeast Asia and Africa.
The C919 could pose the biggest challenge to Comac’s Western competitors. The C919 is a narrowbody twinjet that can carry 158 to 168 passengers, with a range of 4,075 kilometers. It would compete with the 737 MAX and the A320neo.
The C919 has had significant delays, though. Development of the aircraft started in 2008, but its maiden flight didn’t happen till 2017 due to delays caused by technological problems.
While China touts the C919 as a Chinese-made aircraft, many of its components are manufactured in the West. In fact, Comac may have gotten itself into trouble with its Western suppliers: some reports claim that a Beijing-backed hacker group has been spying on the suppliers to gain technological shortcuts to help accelerate the plane’s development. Comac has strongly denied the allegations.
The manufacturer has received 815 orders for the C919 from 28 customers around the world. The company anticipates acquiring Chinese certification in 2021 and has applied for European certification—which would allow Comac to export the C919 and compete with the A320 and 737 MAX directly.
“The manufacturing of the C919 will help the Chinese aviation industry to be involved in the world’s supply chain system of large aircraft, and China will be able to acquire valuable experience,” said Wang Yanan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine.
The CR929 is being jointly developed by Comac and Russia. It would compete with the A330 and the 787, primarily in the Chinese, Russian and Asia-Pacific markets. It seats 280 and has a range of 12,000 kilometers.
This plane lags behind the other Comac aircraft in terms of its development—it’s still in the conceptual design stage, but the manufacturer is looking for system and equipment vendors. Comac anticipates bringing the CR929 into service in 2026.
Comac aims to be a global aircraft competitor.
Comac faces a tough enough challenge to catch Boeing and Airbus—and it hasn’t been helped by the ongoing U.S.-China trade disputes. U.S. suppliers could be banned from working with Comac, which would seriously undermine the company’s efforts to deliver its planes. For example, Honeywell supplies Comac with electronics systems and landing gear, but China could blacklist the U.S. company because it supplied components to weapons systems the U.S. recently sold to Taiwan—a sale Beijing strongly opposed. And the C919 hacking accusations certainly won’t help diffuse trade tensions between the two countries.
Still, shutting out Western contractors could force Chinese contractors to step up their efforts to develop home-grown replacements—which in the long run could help the country’s aviation manufacturing sector.
While Comac isn’t an immediate threat to Boeing and Airbus, it may only be a matter of time before the Chinese aircraft manufacturer catches up to them. Comac is confident it will do just that.
“Comac will not only lead the development of China’s aviation industry, but also lead the global industry chain,” said Wu Guanghui, the C919’s chief designer.
Read more about China’s broader aerospace ambitions at China: The Next Aerospace Superpower.