Chinese built COMAC C919 is making inroads into the narrow-body airline market, historically controlled by Boeing and Airbus. The state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, or COMAC, is building the C919, a narrow-body passenger plane with a capacity of about 170 that the company says has more than 800 orders worldwide. It will compete with the Boeing 737 Max 8 as well as the Airbus 320neo as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious gamble to build an aerospace industry from scratch and break Western companies’ grip on the skies.
China grounded the Max 8 within hours of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, leading a global wave of suspensions. Boeings woes have provided an opportunity for COMAC to get their proverbial foot in the door, they are taking full advantage of the situation by courting all the airlines currently considering buying narrow-body aircraft.
Beijing’s aspirations extend beyond the C919. COMAC is working with Moscow-based United Aircraft Corp. to develop the widebody CR929 that could eventually fly long-haul routes such as Beijing to New York. State-owned enterprises are developing a complete range of aircraft, including widebodies, turboprops, business jets, helicopters, seaplanes, and even zeppelins. “Strategically speaking, aviation manufacturing is a national imperative,” says Yu Zhanfu, a partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in Beijing who focuses on aerospace and defence. “Once you have aviation manufacturing reaching economies of scale, it will lift the entire industrial chain.” COMAC said in November that China’s aviation market will take delivery of 9,000 planes, worth $1.3 trillion, over the next two decades. Two-thirds of those will be single-aisle planes like the Boeing 737 and the C919.
The first C919 test aircraft, powered by LEAP engines just like those on Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A320 Neo, flew its maiden flight last May. It flew a first intercity flight in November. A second test aircraft flew in China in December and made a two-hour flight from Shanghai Pudong International Airport. COMAC is also in the process of building a training centre for maintenance engineers, flight attendants, and other airline employees who will eventually operate on the C919 and CR929.
Another COMAC aircraft, the ARJ21 regional jet, competes with aircraft made by Embraer, which is in a joint venture with Boeing. The buyers so far are smaller carriers, including Chengdu Airlines and Genghis Khan Airlines. “COMAC is a great competitor and we respect them a lot,” Boeing acknowledged in an email. “They are also a great collaborator.” China accounted for about 14 percent of Boeing’s revenue last year, proving that there is a market for their home grown product.
The biggest inhibiting factors at present is the lack of a reliable safety track record as their Western competitors do and at present no Chinese company has the capacity to design and produce engines for commercial jets. The C919’s makes use of the LEAP engine manufactured by CFM International, a joint venture of General Electric Co. and France’s Safran SA.
Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to make his country an aerospace superpower. In the wake of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes the opportunity to do just that may have presented itself.
Seats 168 (1-class) / 158 (2-class)
Length 38.9 m / 127.6 ft
Wingspan 35.8 m / 117.5 ft
Height 11.95 m / 39.2 ft
MTOW 72,500 kg / 159,835 lb
Maximum payload 20,400 kg / 45,000 lb
Maximum fuel 19,560 kg / 43,122 lb
Empty weight 42,100 kg / 92,815 lb
Engine (× 2) CFM International LEAP-1C Turbofan
Thrust per engine 31,000 lbf (137.9 kN)
Cruise Mach 0.785 (450 kn; 834 km/h)
Range 5,555 km / 3,000 nm
Take-off 2,000 m (6,600 ft)
Landing 1,600 m (5,200 ft)
Boeing 737 MAX 8
Seating 200 ( 1 class) /178 ( 2 Class)
Length 39.47 m /129 ft 6 in
Wingspan 35.92 m / 117 ft 10 in
Height 40 ft 4 in / 12.3 m
MTOW 82,191 kg / 181,200 lb
Maximum Payload 20,882 kg / 46,040 lb
Maximum fuel 25,816 L - 45,694 lb
Engine (× 2) CFM International LEAP-1B Turbofan
Thrust per engine 29,317 lbf (130 kN)
Cruise Mach 0.79 (453 kn; 839 km/h)
Range 6,570 km / 3,550 nm
Take-off 2,600 m (8,500 ft)
Landing 1,700 m (5,500 ft)
2-class seats 165 (2 class)/ 195 (1 class)
Length 37.57 m (123 ft 3 in)
Wingspan 35.80 m (117 ft 5 in)
Height 11.76 m (38 ft 7 in)
Fuel capacity 32,940 l (8,700 USg)[c]
Engines (×2) CFM International LEAP-1A
Thrust 120.6 kN (27,120 lbf)
Cruise Mach 0.82 (473 kn; 876 km/h)
Range 6,500 km / 3,500 nm
Take-off 1,988 m (6,522 ft)