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

Opinion: Why the Comac C919 Cannot Currently Be Considered A Rival to the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 MAX

The Comac C919 is a twin-engine narrow-body low-wing airliner made by the Chinese company Comac — short for Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China. It began the design and construction stages in 2009 with the aim of entering the short- and medium-haul market, and since its announcement has aroused much interest in the aviation world as it was regarded as the “new” competitor in the struggle between Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo, and hailed as China’s answer to the Western monopoly of the commercial aviation market.

Comac applied to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) for a Type Certificate for the aircraft on Oct. 28, 2010, and it was supposed to enter commercial service in 2016. However, the first flight took place on May 5, 2017, from Pudong Airport, presenting itself as an aircraft with the capacity to accommodate between 160 and 170 passengers with a range of 4,075 to 5,555 kilometers.

Finally, five years later on Sept. 29, the Comac C919 was certified, obtaining the Type Certificate (TC) issued by the Chinese authorities, and it was certainly a historic moment for global air transport, marking (according to some) the moment when a third player took in the slice of the market hitherto monopolized by giants Airbus and Boeing. However, the reality is different for 3 reasons.

A Small Number of Orders

With a total of 815 orders (many of them purchase intentions) from 28 customers, most of them Chinese, these numbers are much lower than those of Airbus and Boeing, which respectively have 8,500 orders for the Airbus A320neo and about 3,500 orders for the Boeing 737 MAX under their belt. It is to be noted that the orders list for the Chinese plane also included aircraft leasing giant GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS), for ten aircraft with further options for ten more.

However, the Chinese aviation market is still mostly operated by Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Just consider that Air China out of nearly 500 active aircraft in its fleet, more than 450 are Airbus or Boeing and only 11 are Comac ARJ21 low-wing regional airliner bioreactor made in the 2000s.

Production Delays and Slowdowns

Despite being repeatedly announced as close to entering service, the COMAC C919, has not yet carried passengers on a commercial flight. Although the Chinese plane has been certified as airworthy, it has yet to obtain certification in order to start mass production. Without this certification, Comac could deliver only a dozen or so aircraft in 2023, unable to increase industrial production rates. Making a comparison with Airbus, the European aviation company will increase its production rate to 75 Airbus A320s per month in 2025.

China Eastern Airlines, recently stated that it will receive only one C919 by the end of 2022 (instead of the previously planned three jets) and four in 2023. It was announced in Chinese media that the first Comac C919 aircraft in China Eastern livery painted a few weeks ago was seen. The aircraft will be registered as B-919A instead of the provisional registration COMAC.

Such low numbers however are no surprise since thirteen years have passed since the program was launched, in 2009 and almost six years behind the original schedule due to technical difficulties and supply problems. The Chinese aircraft is not expected to enter service until the first half of 2023.

Lack of Certification by European, American Authorities

The recent certification by CAAC, is but a drop in the bucket. As long as the C919 is not certified by the European (EASA) and American (FAA) aviation authorities, it will greatly block the worldwide deployment of this aircraft. The Comac C919, therefore, will only be able to operate in the Chinese market.

Despite these 3 impediments, airlines in both Europe and Africa continue to show interest in the Chinese aircraft. The CEO of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, has always placed much interest in the Chinese aircraft, entering into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2011. However, this could be just another tactic from O’Leary to force Boeing to lower its price for the Boeing 737 of which Ryanair has more than 500 in service and more than 100 yet to be delivered.

Nigeria Air, the new flag carrier of Nigeria, will also consider purchasing some Comac C919s. The Nigerian aviation minister confirmed that the air carrier said it was willing to consider the Chinese aircraft for inclusion in its fleet, taking advantage of the excellent relationship between the nations. However, the Nigerian airline will start its operations with three Boeing 737-800s by the end of 2022, with plans also to purchase Airbus aircraft.

Author

  • Vincenzo Claudio Piscopo

    Vincenzo graduated in 2019 in Mechanical Engineering with an aeronautical curriculum, focusing his thesis on Human Factors in aircraft maintenance. In 2022 he pursued his master's degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Palermo, Italy. He combines his journalistic activities with his work as a Safety and Reliability Engineer for Teoresi Group at Leonardo S.p.A.

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