A New Rival for Boeing and Airbus? What to Expect From China’s C919

An unfamiliar passenger aircraft touched down in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan on Thursday morning, checking off another successful flight among a series of final certification procedures. Dubbed the C919, this aircraft has been self-produced by China, where authorities and industry players maintain high hopes for the country’s future role in global aviation.

The C919 is scheduled to commence commercial flights operated by China Eastern Airlines sometime this spring, and orders for over 1,200 units have already been secured. Within the next five years, annual production of C919s is forecast to reach 150.

“This will be a process of challenging ourselves,” said Zhang Yujin, the deputy general director of Chinese state-owned aviation firm COMAC, regarding the ambitious production target.

The long-term ramifications of the C919 could be profound. The global passenger aircraft market is currently dominated by US-based Boeing and France-based Airbus, and the fleets of China’s top airlines are also mainly comprised of these two firms’ models. The sheer size of China’s domestic travel market will likely fuel the C919’s ascent as production accelerates, while also eating into a core market for the current global giants.

So, what should the world be expecting from the C919?

Technology and Manufacturing

COMAC, shorthand for the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, has been developing this aircraft model since its establishment in 2008 to compete with Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’ A320 families – the current juggernauts of global aviation. Similar to these two product lines, the C919 is a narrow-body, single-aisle aircraft that can accommodate between 158 and 192 passengers.

The C919’s reported range is 3,450 miles, slightly below the 737’s 4,430 miles and the A320’s leading 5,430 miles. Furthermore, the price of the C919 ($99 million) is slightly lower than its two top competitors.

While the C919 has been designed and assembled in China, it – like Boeing and Airbus aircraft – depends on the collaboration of a diverse and extensive range of parts providers and technology firms located all around the world.

“It isn’t really a Chinese jet,” said Richard Aboulafia, Senior Advisor Emeritus at US-based Teal Group, in comments to the Financial Times last October. The aviation expert added that cutting off imports from top global competitors would likely backfire, as China would then lose access to key technologies provided by foreign firms that underpin the C919.

Among the most crucial components is the engine, which is being supplied by CFM, a joint venture between GE Aviation of the US and Safran Aircraft Engines of France. Following in the footsteps of its LEAP-1A engine for Airbus and LEAP-1B engine for Boeing, the Paris-based firm has developed the LEAP-1C specifically for China’s COMAC.

A diagram of the LEAP-1C, the engine developed to power China’s C919. (Image: Safran)

The C919 in Global Markets: David and Two Goliaths

There are several motivating factors driving China’s quest to achieve self-reliance in the field of commercial passenger jets. Apart from the economic advantages brought about by strength in this highly lucrative industry, an exclusive dependence on foreign firms has raised national security concerns – a reality made increasingly evident in recent years as geopolitical tensions mount.

Despite challenges posed by the current dominance of Airbus and Boeing in global aviation, Chinese authorities have been avidly promoting the C919’s development and implementation for nearly 15 years.

Li Jian, the former deputy director of China’s Civil Aviation Administration, declared during a 2018 inspection tour to Chengdu that the large passenger aircraft sector “is of great significance in upgrading national industrial structure, occupying commanding technological heights, and promoting the development of the country’s industry in the mid-to-high end of global value chains.”

Li also emphasized China’s goal of becoming a “civil aviation power” (民航强国). As part of the government’s “Made in China 2025” initiative, self-developed aircraft are planned to account for a domestic market share of more than 10% by that year.

The C919 occupies a central position in efforts to achieve these goals. While a 10% domestic market share by 2025 may seem to be a modest goal, there are signs that COMAC is already catching the attention of Boeing and Airbus, for which China represents a crucial – if not the most crucial – market.

Boeing has estimated that Chinese demand for narrow-body aircraft will reach 6,500 between 2016 and 2035, representing one quarter of total global demand during that period. COMAC, as one of the industry’s youngest players, will be unable to meet that level of demand for many years, meaning that Boeing and Airbus will continue to log orders from the country throughout the coming decade. However, slowly but surely, the C919 is playing a game of catchup.

In the initial stages, demand for the C919 will be almost entirely within China, as top state-backed airlines and a relatively sheltered market provide it with vital support. A report published this week by the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) suggests that the C919 may just have a roadmap to global success by first breaking the Boeing-Airbus duopoly in the domestic market, then leveraging that success to explore overseas markets.

“If the C919 performs as promised in China over the next few years, the next area of competition will be in third markets outside of China, Europe and the US,” reads the report. “Only if the C919 can gain this international foothold will it really become a success.”

The ambitious project is now at a vital nexus, transitioning from development to commercialization. The C919’s commencement of passenger flights this spring just might represent a first step towards eventually becoming the world’s third powerhouse aircraft model.