Old Version

The Sky’s the Limit

China’s C919 is expected not only to challenge the dominance of Boeing and Airbus with new, innovative designs, but serve as an engine to upgrade China’s high-end manufacturing, although it will face headwinds

By Peng Danni Updated Aug.1

A C919 plane crossed the “water gate,” the biggest celebration ceremony of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, at Beijing Capital International Airport on the morning of May 28, with jets of water from fire tenders gushing over the plane as it taxied on the apron. It signaled the first successful commercial flight of China’s first domestically developed large passenger jetliner. Carrying over 130 passengers, including China’s Minister of Industry and Information Jin Zhuanglong and director of China Aviation Administration Song Zhiyong, the flight operated by China Eastern Airlines departed from Shanghai to Beijing. Its regular flight schedule will see it shuttle between Shanghai and Chengdu, capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province.  

According to flight booking platforms, tickets for the C919 flight sell for 919 yuan (US$129) with steady sales. Many passengers shared their experiences on the new plane on social media, posting of their pride in China’s technological progress.  

Developed by the State-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), the C919 was granted its type certification, the final approval of the design and components, on September 29, 2022, and received its production license, a certificate proving that the plane can go into mass production, on November 29, 2022. By February 2023, the plane had completed 100 hours of test flights.  

So far COMAC has confirmed around 1,200 orders for the C919 from more than 30 clients. On December 9, 2022, COMAC delivered the first C919 to China Eastern Airlines. As China’s first home-developed large passenger plane based on international standards, the C919 is expected to compete with the big two global manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, which together form a duopoly in the civil aviation market and influence the global civil aviation industry, though it will face headwinds. COMAC has applied for airworthiness certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency, media reported. 

Demand and Dominance 
China already has the ARJ21 Xiangfeng (Flying Phoenix), a 78-90 seat regional jet also developed by COMAC, which made its maiden flight in 2008. Development of the C919 started in 2007, and it had its first test flight in 2017. The single-aisle aircraft with a capacity of 158-168 seats has a range of 4,075-5,555 kilometers, similar to its narrowbody competitors, the Airbus A320neo and Boeing’s B737 MAX 8.  

According to Li Xiaojin, director of the Institute of Aviation Economics, Civil Aviation University of China, the C919 design is the workhorse of the skies. Sixty percent of passenger aircraft in use in the world are single-aisle narrowbody jets. In China, these aircraft are used for longer domestic and regional international routes.  

The C919 is expected to take a share of the expanding passenger plane market. According to a market analysis report published by Boeing in 2021, the rate of single-aisle narrowbody planes worldwide will rise from 64 percent to 68 percent in the following 10 years, more than 24,000 in total.  

In 2021, 1,034 commercial planes were delivered, 92 percent of which were made by Boeing and Airbus, according to data both companies reported in January 2022. Aviation expert Lin Zhijie told NewsChina called duopoly of Boeing and Airbus dominates the civil aviation market. Boeing has 6,000 orders of narrowbody planes on its books, and Airbus has 8,000, adding up to a value of over 4 trillion yuan (US$560b).  

China is the world’s biggest plane importer. Boeing’s 2021 annual report predicted that one-fifth of its planes, both passenger and cargo aircraft, would be sold to China between 2021 and 2040. In April, when French President Emmanuel Macron visited China, Airbus snagged orders worth US$20 billion. In July 2022, China’s top four airlines agreed with Airbus to purchase 292 narrowbody A320 planes. An annual market analysis by the Aviation Industry Development Research Center of China in 2021 predicted that China would need 7,646 civil planes between 2021 and 2040, including 1,561 wide-body planes with 200-500 seats, 5,276 narrowbody planes, and 809 regional jets.  

“Before the pandemic, a quarter of narrowbody planes produced worldwide were delivered to Chinese airlines and China purchased over 300 narrowbody planes every year. So it’s a vast market for plane makers to compete for,” Lin told NewsChina.  

“After the C919 is delivered, it will influence the make-up of the global aviation industry by joining in the competition. From experience, once there is a competitor, the price of imports drops quickly, so it’s good for domestic airlines to reduce costs and cut ticket prices,” he added. 

Media reported the C919 will sell for US$99 million each, lower than Airbus’s A320neo (US$110.6m) and Boeing’s B737 MAX8 (US$117.1m). As the first domestic buyer of the C919, China Eastern signed a purchase contract with COMAC in March 2021 to buy five aircraft likely to fly on routes between major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. At the end of September, 2022, two C919 planes made a test flight from Beijing to Shanghai. On January 1, 2023, China Eastern’s first C919 made its first test flight, to great fanfare.  

In an interview with State media China Central Television following the September test flight, one of the pilots said the C919 is roomy, stable and uses less fuel, making pilots feel more relaxed and passengers more comfortable. Guo Guoping, a passenger on the maiden commercial flight told Hangzhou newspaper the Qianjiang Evening News that the C919’s seats and passageway are wider than that of similar planes which makes passengers feel more comfortable.  

However, the aircraft has not yet received airworthiness certifications from the European Aviation Safety Agency or the US Federal Aviation Administration. China has bilateral civil aviation safety and airworthiness agreements with EU and US aviation authorities, which could accelerate and simplify the application process. According to CAAC’s 2022 annual report, 40 countries and regions had entered into similar airworthiness relations with China by the end of 2022. Analysts warned that the C919’s advantages will not be acknowledged until they are proved by the market and fully supported by a complete, mature international sales network. It took Airbus around four decades to compete with Boeing on an equal level.  

The C919, though domestically designed and developed, is equipped with imported engines made by General Electric in the US and Safran Electronics & Defense in France. In early 2020, unconfirmed news circulating online said the US government was considering cutting the supply of engines for the C919.  

Although China has been developing its own engine, the CJ-1000A for big passenger planes made by Aero Engine Corp of China Commercial Aircraft Engine Co (ACEE ACE), it is not expected to go into production until after 2028. Some experts cautioned that if engine supply is cut, the C919 would have to shift to become cargo planes. 

Powering Manufacturing 
Li Xiaojin believes the C919 is more important as an engine to drive other industries and suppliers. “By the time the C919 project started in 2007, the Chinese economy was stuck in an era of cheap manufacturing, but our economy needed to transform to high-end manufacturing and technical development,” he told NewsChina.  

According to Li, China lagged far behind in aviation mechanics, precision instruments and materials, so developing a big plane which requires a cluster of modern sciences and technologies is a driver of related industries.  

Analysts said China has accumulated a wealth of experience from making parts for Boeing planes like the 737, so developing the C919 was an excellent opportunity to use and upgrade this experience. Similar to international companies, COMAC adopted the “leading maker plus suppliers” mode to make the C919. COMAC’s data showed that before the C919’s first test flight, over 200 enterprises and universities in 22 provinces and municipalities were involved in its development, and another 16 material makers and 54 parts makers have become potential suppliers.  

Designed and assembled by COMAC, the primary structure of the C919, including the cockpit, body, the outer wings and the tail, were manufactured by other domestic companies, including AVIC Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group in Sichuan Province, Hongdu Aviation Industrial Group in Jiangxi Province and Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Group in Shaanxi Province.  

During the C919’s development and manufacture, there were several breakthroughs, Li said. For example, China could not make the foam and shell fabric for plane seats, since the two materials require high fire retar-dancy and low toxicity to prevent the seats from catching fire at temperatures below 1,000 C and also to float in case the plane ditches on water. The C919’s development quickly helped Chinese technicians master these technologies.  

The C919’s development also filled China’s knowledge gap in fly-by-wire flight control systems and active control technologies, two major technologies for civil aircraft. In a 2017 interview with financial portal Caixin, Wang Lei, the C919’s chief designer for stability and control, revealed that it took his team less than five years to work out the problem.  

In an interview with Securities Times in May, Zhang Chao, chief industrial analyst at AVIC Securities, said that by absorbing and transforming domestic and international advanced technologies, the C919’s development has helped several companies to first grow and then promote the development of the high-end manufacturing industry.  

COMAC has established two national and five provincial innovation platforms and supported many labs and institutes. COMAC’s Innovation Valley, a Shanghai government-backed hub for high-tech aviation projects in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, has become a cluster of 100 scientific projects in fields such as avionics, flight simulators and other aviation research.  

According to a survey by Zhongtai Securities published on July 14, 2022, in the next two decades, industries developed around the commercial use and mass production of the C919 will form a market worth 1.36 trillion yuan (US$190.7b), 67.9 billion yuan (US$9.5b) annually, excluding other high value-added driven by manufacturing. The Beijing Evening News cited an anonymous expert who believes that supporting industries based on COMAC’s aviation industrial zones will by 2035 support the company to produce around 200 C919 planes annually, which will bring about 300 billion yuan (US$42.1b) in industrial value. 

New Leap 
China’s first attempt to develop a big passenger plane dates back to the 1970s when the central government approved a program for an aircraft, similar to a Boeing 707, called the Y-10. Led by Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing, the program involved more than 300 plants, institutes and universities nationwide.  

The Y-10 made its maiden flight in September 1980, making China the world’s fifth country with the capacity to produce narrowbody planes over 100 tons in weight. But since the plane was not for civil use and there was no clear future for commercial use, the project was shelved with only three ever made, and China was already importing planes from Russia and the US. In 1985, a Y-10 aircraft that had crossed the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau several times was grounded.  

In 2008, COMAC was established in Shanghai to develop large passenger planes, with Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing one of its subsidiaries. By the time the C919 made its first test flight in May 2017, COMAC had built six aircraft to conduct test flights, which flew across China in different terrains, climates and weather to test the C919’s safety and reliability in extreme conditions like high temperatures, severe cold, storms and high winds.  

In December 2020, the C919 entered the last phase of testing to enable it to be certified as airworthy by CAAC. According to Yang Zhenmei, director of the CAAC’s airworthiness approval department, the C919 took part in 276 tests at different sites.  

According to an aviation industry report published by Zhongtai Securities on August 29, 2022, it took the ARJ21 15 years from inception to receiving a production license, and the C919 had already passed the six hardest and longest stages.  

“Although there is still some way to go for us to keep up with Boeing and Airbus in overall technologies and development – Boeing has 100 years’ experience making narrowbody planes and Airbus 60 years – COMAC has some advantages, such as being freer to adopt innovative technologies,” Lin said.  

Wu Guanghui, the C919’s chief designer, said at the World Design Cities Conference in Shanghai on September 15, 2022 that they had incorporated new designs into the C919 manufacturing program. For example, in cooperation with Huawei, COMAC used an AI program to make an industrial fluid simulation model which helped shorten the C919’s development.  

Media reports said that since 2018, COMAC was exploring 5G and AI use in intelligent manufacturing to make the process more efficient and high quality.  

“Compared to previous planes, the C919’s design and development caters more to market demand. Based on many market analyses and consultations, the C919 is more user- and commercially oriented,” Lin said.  

Li Xiaojin agrees. “In a break from other planes which are often made behind closed doors, the C919’s production was not started until COMAC had enough orders. To better listen to airlines, COMAC employed former senior leaders of the top four [Chinese] airlines,” he said. “It’s a new leap for China’s plane manufacturing.”  

“It’s still too early to talk about the C919’s market space and competitiveness in the international market, since it is new and will definitely face problems in the future, but we hope the C919 will fly smoothly and any problems will be solved quickly, and that way we’ll be able to see constant improvements,” Li said.

Passengers board a China Eastern Airlines C919 at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, on the first flight of its regular scheduled route from Shanghai to Chengdu, May 29, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

Most passengers record their experience on the first C919 scheduled flight from Shanghai to Chengdu, May 29, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

The China Eastern Airlines C919 taxis after landing at Chengdu Tianfu International Airport, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, June 11, 2023 (Photo by VCG)