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Chinese aircraft development has just taken a big step forward, with the countries’ newest, and largest, narrowbody development being certified by CAAC at the end of September 2022. This aircraft goes head to head against the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. Whilst it may be some way off entering service in Europe or North America, it could make a big impact on fleets in China and other countries soon.

Developing the Chinese aviation industry

The Chinese aircraft manufacturing industry developed from the 1950s as China moved to showcase its abilities and develop internal industries. In the early years it produced many foreign aircraft under licence, but still began development of its own aircraft as well.

The first major commercial aircraft launched was the ARJ21, in 2008. This is a regional jet with capacity of up to 90 passengers, developed by the state-owned company COMAC. Other variants have been proposed but not yet confined, but with well over 200 orders it has been quite a success for a first development.

COMAC has long planned a larger narrowbody aircraft, The ARJ21 competes in the regional jet market with aircraft including Embraer E-Jets and the Bombardier CRJ Series, but not against larger Boeing and Airbus narrowbodies. In 2008, it launched a project to develop exactly that – a competitor in the commercial narrowbody market. This soon became known as the C919.

Certifying the C919

The C919 began test flights in 2017, with six testing aircraft and a planned 4,200 hour flight program. Delays in initial testing pushed the expected certification and delivery from 2020 to 2021, and minor later delays pushed it further into 2022.

By May 2022, it was reported that final test sessions had been completed, and COMAC began listing the aircraft for sale. Certification was finally awarded by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) on September 29th. It was marked with a large-scale ceremony at Beijing airport, attended by Chinese President Xi Jingping.

Certification means the aircraft can now enter service in China. It has met all requirements under Part 25 of the China Civil Aviation Regulations. So far, it has only been certified by the CAAC. Earlier in the process, it was reported that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was working closely with COMAC, but there is no update or comment on this yet.

The C919 has not yet made its first commercial flights, but this is expected later in 2022 with launch customer China Eastern.

Plans for the C919

The C919 so far has just one model with a capacity of 156 to 168 passengers – similar to the mid-sized Airbus A320. There are no plans yet for any further variants, although this is, of course, possible.

Much of the design and construction uses Western expertise and components, but this is something COMAC will look to change. The engines are the best example of this. Currently, the C919 is powered by two CFM International LEAP engines. Development of a Chinese built alternative is underway, though, and will likely become an option in the near future.

Orders for the C919

So far, there are only firm orders from three large Chinese airlines – launch customer China Eastern, plus China Southern and Air China. There are also reports of many hundreds of options and letters of intent from other Chinese airlines and from leasing companies (including GECAS).

In terms of use outside China, nothing has yet been confirmed. Now that the aircraft is certified it is likely options will start to convert into orders. The leased aircraft could well end up in service outside China.

Price, of course, will be a major factor in orders. During development, estimates were that the C919 would list at around $50 million – it has now been released at US$101 million, very close to the list price of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. This will certainly give overseas operators more to think about. Back at the start of the project, several airlines (including Ryanair) had expressed early interest. It remains to be seen if they will still be keen at this price.

Staying local initially will not concern COMAC. Estimates from Boeing, for example, are that the Chinese market will need over 6,600 new narrowbody aircraft by 2039.

Final Thoughts

China is developing home-grown industries in many areas. With its latest aircraft certification, its presence in the aviation sector is certainly strengthened. The China market is huge – but COMAC will no doubt look to expand into other regions.


Ryanair commitment:


Boeing Chinese market growth estimates:


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