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A Comac C919 conducting high-speed taxiing (Photo: Comac)

COMAC C919 Secures its First Firm Orders

China Eastern Airlines, a launch customer of the COMAC C919 signed a firm order with the state-owned aircraft manufacturer on Monday to purchase five of the narrow-body aircraft, the China Commercial Aircraft Corporation (COMAC) said.

The airline, which signed a letter of intent with COMAC in 2010, is expected to receive the first C919 aircraft this year once they are certified by the Chinese aeronautical authority.

COMAC’s Selling Points

The C919, which will compete with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, is widely regarded as a symbol of China’s civil aerospace ambition. Wu Guanghui, the C919’s chief designer, said in May 2020 that there were 815 provisional orders for the plane from 28 customers.

The first C919 aircraft rolled off the production line in 2015 and completed its maiden flight from Shanghai Pudong International Airport on May 5, 2017. The CAAC issued the first Type Inspection Authorization for the C919 program in November 2020, which allowed the start of certification tests.

The aircraft, the Chinese aviation industry’s second contemporary project after ARJ21, is the first to include modern construction techniques and to pose as competition with Boeing’s and Airbus’ best-selling jets within the Chinese domestic market. Many state-owned lessors and operators have received the “strong suggestion” to take the aircraft with the idea of reducing the overall dependence of western builders. But while the aircraft can be called indigenous, many of its main components come from afar: Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, GE and Safran are some of the suppliers, and the horizon for a Chinese-built replacement of the critical components those companies provide is anything but close.

Markets Outside of China

The C919 is likely to be a winner in the fast-growing Chinese domestic market, although it is not expected to conquer many markets outside of its main area of influence. Despite a clean sheet design and many state-of-the-art occidental systems, the C919 is late to the 150-170 seat party, matching both Boeing 737 NG and A320ceo performances but falling short of their MAX/Neo evolutions. Besides that, FAA or EASA’s certifications seem to be far from happening.

To have a chance at winning orders outside China and its dependent market, COMAC needs to build a solid supply chain and a broad support network, and that may be as expensive as the aircraft development itself. Sanctions and frictions between the United States and the Chinese government will add complications to achieving those goals, and to date, neither COMAC nor the C919 are offering anything that an Embraer, Airbus or Boeing aircraft can deliver right now, such as a well-known product and an “operationally proven” background.

The C919 roll out marked a milestone for Comac. (Photo: Zhang Anchao/Comac)

The aircraft’s price tag does not seem to be an issue now, as first-generation Embraer E-Jets, Next-Generation 737s and A320ceos have reduced their value in a market that has been depressed since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit full-force around the world. If an operator is feeling lucky and wants to take a chance, there are also scores of white-tail 737 MAX aircraft that Boeing is willing to sell at significant discounts.

China Express announced in June last year that it had signed a framework agreement with COMAC to purchase and operate a total of 100 aircraft, including ARJ21-700 and C919. Deliveries will be made over a 10-year period starting in 2020. Without disclosing the value of the deal, COMAC said in a statement on social media that the aircraft would be based at China Eastern headquarters in Shanghai and will operate routes to Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Wuhan.

Pablo Diaz
Pablo Diaz
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