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.