China's challenge for air supremacy

Small model, big ambitions: China hopes the C919 will break the dominance of Boeing and Airbus

Story highlights

  • Comac C919 plane set to rival Boeing 737 and Airbus A320
  • State-owned company says first plane ready by 2016
  • Company says it has 215 orders, mainly from Chinese carriers
  • Its success will come down to how economical it is, suggests analyst
The skies above China are set to become a lot more crowded as wealth and air travel in the country take-off.
China is going to need around 5,000 more commercial jets over the next 20 years to fulfill the needs of the country's burgeoning jet set, according to Randy Tinseth, vice-president of marketing for Boeing Commercial.
In 2010, Chinese airlines welcomed aboard 267 million passengers (in 1980 it was just 3.4 million), a number second only to the U.S. (over 500 million). That represented a 15% increase compared to 2009 as the country's airline market steadily heads towards the stratosphere.
Airbus and Boeing want to maintain their share of the booming market, but a much talked-about mission to create China's own civil aircraft business is aiming to challenge their dominance in a few years time.
The vanguard of the Chinese project is the C919. It's a single-aisle, 168-seat plane to rival Boeing's 737 and Airbus' A320, the small-sized jets that account for around 65% of global airline sales. Developed by the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac), the company hopes it will propel it to a place in the sun among the industry heavyweights.
It won't be the first plane developed by Comac that has been in partnership with Canadian firm Bombardier on smaller airliners, but it will have more indigenous design and manufacture features that previous aircraft.
Honeywell and GE are among the companies that will supply some of the aircraft's avionics, but having international component makers is something that has been a common part of the aviation industry for many years, says Sivi Govindasamy, Asia Managing Editor of Flightglobal Group.
"It's geared towards bringing pride to China by competing in a very visible market segment. Its so they can say, 'We can do this, and do this darned well.'"
Just how well is unknown, as the C919 only exists in model form at present. From its current advanced design stage, a test plane is scheduled to be flying in 2014, with 2016 targeted for the first delivery.
A spokesperson for Comac says that it has so far secured orders for 215 planes and will announce new deals at the Singapore Airshow later this month.
Those in the aviation world are already taking note, but ultimately its success will come down to the bottom-line, suggest Govindasamy, and how much it will cost to buy and operate.
"When an airline buys an aircraft it really has to look at its economics because profit margins are so thin. Anything that helps them save money, they'll do it," says Govindasamy.
"How much money (the C919) will be able to save airlines is still not clear, especially as both Boeing and Airbus have come up with re-engineered variants of the 737 and A320."
China's three state-owned giants, Air China, China Southern and China Eastern will be the principle recipients of the planes currently on Comac's book.
Last year low-coats carrier Ryanair was the one western airline to indicate it was considering purchasing the C919, but Govindasamy believes that most international airlines will be playing a wait-and-see game.
"If you look at any aircraft program around the world, the very first aircraft of a family generally doesn't tend to be the best," says Govindasamy.
"You would have to come up with a second variant that would improve the first substantially. Only once the aircraft is out there and performing can those improvements be made. So a lot of people are looking at what they might do afterwards. That's a good ten to 15 years away."