This New Regional Jet May Be the Most Important First Flight in Decades

The COMAC C919 nears airline service. Bad news for Boeing and Airbus?

Commercial aviation is growing rapidly in China. The emergence of a relatively affluent middle-class, plus new more maintainable and fuel-efficient airliners are making China the must win market for airframers worldwide. 

To date, this has been good news for Boeing and Airbus, but Chinese maker COMAC has started production of an efficient small jet that is aimed squarely at the sweet spot in the market, currently dominated by the Airbus A320 series. 

Although it makes extensive use of Western engines and avionics, the emergence of a credible locally made competitor in the huge Chinese market is a shot across the bow for Boeing and Airbus. Will the global market support three major airline manufacturers? 

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Building commercial airplanes is a tough way to earn a living.  

Despite uncertain economics, frequent airline bankruptcies, fuel price shocks and ever-increasing government regulation, airframers have spent a century improving the product. A few aircraft proved to be inflection points in aviation technology—airplanes that changed the very nature of passenger flight services.   

In the 1930s, this airplane, the Douglas DC-3, created the modern airline industry with a combination of high capacity for its day, and sensible operating economics that kept it in the air for decades. Some are still in service today for cargo use.  

In the late 1950s, this airplane, the Boeing 707, created what we now know as the industry, with high-speed flight over oceans and across continents at stratospheric altitudes, pressurized and above the weather. A decade later, this airplane, the Boeing 747, used its enormous capacity to reduce seat mile costs to the point that air travel became affordable for millions worldwide.  

This airplane, the Airbus A300, represented the first credible non-U.S. competitor in the global airliner market, and launched the era of wide-body twins that is still the standard today. Now, just last month, there was this: the first flight of the COMAC C919 airliner.  

Unlike those other aircraft, the COMAC C919 doesn’t break new technological ground, or fly higher, or faster, or carry more people than its competition. But it is highly significant for one reason: it is designed and built in China. The aircraft, which can be configured to seat between 158 and 168 passengers, can be ordered with a range of between 4,000 and 5,500 kilometres (about 2,400-3,300 miles), positioning it as a competitor to both the Boeing and Airbus cash cow programs: the 737 Max, and the A320 series.  

A decade in development, the C919 program was slowed by Trump Administration sanctions on technology transfer. According to the Washington D.C.-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an estimated 60percent of the aircraft components are supplied by U.S. companies.  

So, what makes this jet special? The C919 is important not for its technical specifications, but because of the market it is intended to serve. COMAC predicts that the Chinese airliner fleet size will reach 10,000 aircraft by 2040 and will represent 22 percent of the entire world’s passenger aircraft fleet. This will make China the world’s largest single aviation market and over the next two decades Chinese operators will take delivery of about $1.4 trillion worth of equipment. They estimate that two thirds of those airliners will be in the C919/737/A320 single aisle category.  

But will Chinese and global airlines order the aircraft in quantity? The U.S., Europe and China regard airliner manufacturing as essential, strategic industries, and domestic Chinese carriers currently operate mainly Boeing and Airbus equipment. Both Boeing and Airbus have completion and final assembly facilities in China, but it remains to be seen if there will be political pressure from Beijing on domestic carriers to purchase Chinese product.  

In the current U.S./European duopoly, engineering excellence is only one factor driving aircraft sales. Subsidies and government supported financing are major factors, so it is reasonable to expect that global customers may find favourable terms from the Chinese company and government. And with engines and avionics primarily U.S.-sourced, maintenance and operations should be attractive to airlines currently operating Boeing and Airbus equipment.  

The C919 is China’s first world-class offering in the major airliner market, but the company is also working on a Sino-Russian joint venture to produce a twin aisle wide body called the CR929, initially aimed at the Chinese and Russian markets. It is unclear at this moment if sanctions against Russia, which impact Russian operators of Boeing and Airbus aircraft, will accelerate the CR929 program, but the C919 is aimed at the enormous single aisle twin jet market that has been owned by Boeing and Airbus for a quarter of a century. 

Is there room for three major air framers in the global market? We’re soon going to find out.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.