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Boeing and Airbus have long dominated large commercial jet production. This was not always the case in the past though, and things may change again in the future. China poses a significant threat to these two manufacturers. A well-funded and ambitious aircraft manufacturing sector has already produced commercial aircraft, and these are set to increase in size.

Chinese aircraft development is not new

In recent years Chinese aircraft manufacturing has caught attention with the launch of commercial narrowbody aircraft, and proposals for widebody aircraft. These are competing directly with the US manufacturer Boeing and European manufacturer Airbus – threatening at some point to perhaps breakup this long dominant duopoly.

The Chinese aircraft manufacturing industry developed from the 1950s. This was one of many moves by China at that time to demonstrate and expand its abilities. Initially the industry was based on building aircraft under licence from foreign manufacturers – such as the Xian H-6 (which was based on the Soviet-designed Tupolev Tu-16).

The industry soon moved to produce its own aircraft, often based on foreign designs. One of the earliest, for example, was the Shanghai Y-10. This was a four engine narrowbody aircraft very closely matched to the Boeing 707. Four of these aircraft were built, but they never entered airline service. Airlines remained mainly using western built aircraft, and manufacturers focussed on building aircraft under licence.

The ARJ21 – over 70 in service

The first major own-built success from China is the ARJ21. This is a regional jet with capacity of up to 90 passengers, developed by the state-owned company COMAC. It first flew in 2008 and (as of September 2022) 75 aircraft have now been delivered. There are at least 150 further aircraft on order. So far, it only operates with Chinese airlines.

COMAC has proposed several other variants of the ARJ21, including a stretched option taking capacity over 100. None of these have yet been developed, but the one in service (known as ARJ21-700) is quite a success story for a first development.

New narrowbody C919

The ARJ21 is a regional jet, in the same market as Embraer E-Jets or the Bombardier CRJ Series. With a maximum capacity under 100, it does not really compete with Airbus or Boeing narrowbodies. A narrowbody development though is hot on the heels of the ARJ21.

COMAC launched the narrowbody C919 program in 2008. This was an obvious next step in Chinese aircraft development. The Chinese aviation market is expanding rapidly, with huge demand for new aircraft. Estimates from Boeing, for example, are that the Chinese market will need over 6,600 new narrowbody aircraft by 2039.

Just offering the domestic market an alternative to Boeing and Airbus aircraft is compelling. But there are overseas markers as well. Expansion in western countries will be difficult – since 2021, the US has banned imports from COMAC due to its Chinese military links. However, there are plenty of options for COMAC in other Asian countries, South America and Africa.

The C919 so far has just one model – similar in size and capacity to the Airbus A320. It will offer a capacity of 156 to 168 passengers, with a standard 3-3 economy class layout. It will initially be powered by CFM International LEAP engines, but development of a Chinese alternative is underway. Airframe construction is being handled mostly by COMAC and other Chinese domestic companies, but several foreign companies are involved in electrical systems, controls and avionics.

The aircraft first flew in 2017 and testing is now well underway. Certification and entry into service will hopefully happen in 2022. China Eastern is planned to be the launch customer, and current estimates are that it will receive one aircraft in 2022 (down from the original three planned). It will be a small, but very significant, step for the Chinese aviation industry.

The potential for the C919 is huge. So far, there are only small firm orders from three large Chinese airlines – launch customer China Eastern, plus China Southern and Air China. However, there are reports of many hundreds of options and letters of intent – from smaller Chinese airlines and from leasing companies. Once the aircraft is certified, we will see what happens here.

Widebody under design – the CR929

State manufacturer COMAC is also working on a widebody design, similar to the Boeing 787. This is being developed by The China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation Limited (CRAIC) – a joint venture between COMAC and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC).

It is expected to be a 250 to 320 seat widebody (there are proposals for a 390 seat variant, but nothing yet launched), with a range of up to 12,000 kilometres. The project remains in early stages, with no prototype yet built, and many partner selections still to be made, or revealed. It is likely that, as with the C919, some foreign companies will be involved in construction, but with UAC and Russian experience on board, there may be less Western involvement.

The latest update from Chinese authorities in September 2022 was that the aircraft was entering the “initial design phase.” When it was launched, the CR929 was proposed to fly in 2025 and enter service in 2027. That now seems like 2028 or 2029 at the earliest. There have already been delays due to Russian cooperation – it remains to be seen whether the current issues will cause further problems.

There are no reported orders yet for the aircraft. As with the C919 though, there is massive potential. When launching the project in 2017, CRAIC highlighted an intention to take a 10% of Boeing and Airbus’ widebody market. Boeing at the time estimated that over 9,000 aircraft would be needed over the next 20 years.

Final Thoughts

China is changing fast, with many domestic industries growing and entering new markets. There are already Chinese built aircraft in service, but once commercial options that compete with Boeing and Airbus are launched, this will enter a new phase. Expansion beyond China remains unclear, but as the industry proves itself, others will likely show interest.


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