Once in service, the Chinese C919 jetliner will compete directly with the more popular western-built narrow body aircraft. Angus Mackay and Stuart Rubin from ICF examine the prospects.
Launched in 2008, the C919 is being developed by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) and is China’s first significant entry into the modern commercial jetliner market, an arena long dominated by Boeing and Airbus.
The C919 made its first flight in May 2017 and initial deliveries to launch customer China Eastern Airlines are expected in 2021. The initial standard variant has a range of 2,200 nautical miles (nm) to be complemented by a longer-range 3,000 nm variant.
The aircraft represents a significant advance on COMAC’s earlier commercial jet transport, the ARJ21-700, and is the initial model of what is anticipated to be a family of aircraft that may include a widebody variant developed with Russia’s UAC for service entry in 2025, and currently dubbed the CR929.
The C919 makes extensive use of western manufacturers – via joint ventures with local Chinese manufacturers – for many of the major systems such as Honeywell (APU, Flight Management Systems), Liebherr (Landing Gear), and CFM International (CFMI) (powerplant).
As originally envisaged, composites were expected to comprise about 15 per cent of the airframe by structural weight, but this level has gradually been reduced over time as a risk-mitigation exercise.
The final composition of airframe materials is not known, but it is believed that aluminum-lithium is expected to be used for part of the fuselage.
The C919 is to be powered by a pair of CFMI LEAP-1C engines with AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engines (ACAE) acting as the local JV partner. This LEAP engine variant was officially launched in December 2009 when COMAC selected the LEAP-1C for the C919.
The engine incorporates a unique, fully integrated Nexcelle propulsion system (IPS), which includes the engine, nacelle, and thrust reverser; and is jointly produced by GE, Safran’s Aircelle, and AVIC.
The IPS, along with the pylon – developed by COMAC – were designed in conjunction with each other, which has resulted in improved aerodynamics, reduced weight, and what is expected to be easier maintenance.
An alternative Chinese powerplant, the ACAE CJ-1000A is planned for service entry by 2025.
The C919 is expected to compete with current and recent offerings from Boeing and Airbus including the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX families of aircraft, and Russia’s Irkut MC-21. The following table compares the C919 against the Boeing and Airbus equivalent products.
The C919 is expected to compete in the 160-180 seat single-aisle market segment. This area has long been dominated by Boeing and Airbus, both of which have sold significant volumes of 737NG/MAX and A320ceo/neo aircraft over the past 25 years.
Compared with the AJR21, the C919 incorporates a high degree of leading western technologies and it is clear from over 300 firm orders from Chinese airlines, lessors, banks and financial institutions and, indeed, US lessor GECAS, that the C919 will enjoy considerable success in Chinese domestic markets.
However, deployment of additional test aircraft and subsequent delays in the flight test programme will likely lead to production and service entry delays, already five years late, which may be exacerbated by US punitive tariff and trade embargoes in the future, and challenges with US FAA certification.
Already range-constrained compared to its Airbus and Boeing competitors, the technological merits of the C919 are eroding as the competing A320neo and 737 MAX aircraft enjoy a 10-year technology advantage and corresponding lower costs of operation.
This advantage will militate against the widespread Western orders necessary for overall global program success which is unlikely until COMAC can demonstrate reliable and economic in-service performances as well as the robust service/support network Western airlines have come to expect.