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  • Writer's pictureCornelius Kwok

SA2024: The COMAC C919 – China Soars in Commercial Aviation



 

In a significant moment for the aviation industry, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) made history by debuting the COMAC C919 on the global stage at the Singapore Airshow 2024, Asia’s largest airshow. This event marked a pivotal milestone in COMAC’s endeavour to establish itself as a prominent player in the international commercial aviation market.


COMAC’s presence at the Singapore Airshow

The Singapore Airshow, renowned as a premier platform for showcasing cutting-edge aerospace technologies and facilitating industry networking, provides an ideal setting for COMAC to unveil its flagship C919 to global audiences. This event symbolises a pivotal step in shaping the future of commercial aviation, with COMAC asserting its presence and capabilities on the international stage.



COMAC conducted flying displays to showcase its domestically developed aircraft at the Singapore’s biennial airshow taking place from 20-25 February 2024 at the Changi Exhibition Centre. This move reflects COMAC’s initiative to broaden their market and sales beyond the confines of China.


COMAC’s participation in the Singapore Airshow this year is opportune for China’s aspiration to establish itself amongst global aircraft manufacturers. The current scrutiny faced by Boeing over issues with its 737 MAX jets has intensified regulatory concerns. In contrast, the COMAC C919, although lacking certification from major regulators such as US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or its European counterpart, is still authorised to operate demonstration flights using uncertified test planes.



About COMAC and their flagship aircraft the COMAC C919

The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) has emerged as a prominent player in the global aviation sector, underscoring China’s ambitious commitment to establishing a significant presence in commercial aircraft manufacturing. Established in 2008, COMAC embarked on ambitious initiatives with a primary focus on developing its flagship model, the C919 narrow-body airliner.


The C919 programme mirrors China’s dedication to achieving aerospace excellence and international recognition. With the C919 now certified and operational within China, COMAC is poised to challenge the established duopoly in the global commercial aviation market.


As a narrow-body single-aisle passenger airliner, the C919 designed and manufactured by COMAC in Shanghai Pudong, competes directly with its counterparts, the Airbus A320NEO and Boeing 737 MAX. It was conceived to diminish reliance on foreign technology amid deteriorating ties with the US. Despite this objective, the C919 still relies significantly on imported parts, especially from US manufactures, as indicated in the table below.

Parts

Manufacturer

Country of Manufacture

Auxiliary Power Unit

Honeywell

USA

Door Signal System

Crane AE

USA

Landing Gear System

Honeywell

USA

Aircraft Tyres

Michelin

USA

Fuel System

Parker Aerospace

USA

Cockpit

Eaton

USA

Electrical System

Honeywell

USA

Weather Radar

Rockwell Collins

USA

Flight Control System

Parker Aerospace

USA

Flight Data Recorder

GE Aerospace

USA

Fire Detection System

Kidde

UK

Engine Thrust Reverser System

French Aircelle

France

Engine

CFM LEAP

France & USA

Wing Anti-Icing System

Liebherr

Germany

Radar Cover

AVIC Chengdu

China

Airframe

AVIC

China

Wings

AVIC Xi’an

China

Empennage

COMAC

China

Table 1 COMAC C919 parts and their manufacturers.


Although COMAC faces dependence on US companies for critical components, efforts have been undertaken to mitigate this reliance. Alternatives for the CFM LEAP engine, produced by the joint venture CFM International (a collaboration between American GE Aviation and France’s Safran Aircraft Engine), are being explored.


In 2019, COMAC along with affiliated subsidiaries of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China and COMAC shareholders, faced additional challenges when added to the US Commerce Department’s list of Chinese companies allegedly having military ties with the People’s Liberation Army of China. This prohibited American companies or individuals from investing in COMAC, escalating restrictions on the export of parts from the US to COMAC in China and causing further delays in the C919 development.


COMAC C919 Development Timeline

The development of the COMAC C919, China’s first domestically developed large passenger aircraft, spans over several years, marked by significant milestones and adversities:

  1. Project Initiation (2008): COMAC was established, reflecting on China’s ambitious vision to enter the global commercial aviation market. Shortly after the formation of COMAC, COMAC embarked on the development of the C919.

  2. Announcement & Expectations (January 2009): COMAC officially announced the development of the C919. The company set ambitious targets for the maiden flight in 2014 and anticipated deliveries to commence in 2016.

  3. Prototype Unveiling & Engine Selection (2009-2010): In September 2009, COMAC unveiled the first prototype of the C919 at the Asian Aerospace Expo in Hong Kong. Only two months later, COMAC selected CFM International to provide engine for the C919. The COMAC C919 is powered by two CFM LEAP-1C Engines.

  4. Type Certificate Application (December 2010): The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) accepted COMAC’s application for a type certificate, a crucial step in the airworthiness certification process.

  5. Maiden Flight Delays (2013): COMAC faced setbacks as it announced delays to the C919 maiden’s flight, pushing it to 2015. This delay also impacted the anticipated delivery timeline, extending it to 2017 or 2018.

  6. Assembly Commencement (September 2014): The assembly of the C919 commenced in September 2014 at COMAC manufacturing plant in Shanghai Pudong, signalling progress despite the delays.

  7. Further Delays & Unveiling (2015): In May 2015, the C919 experienced additional delays, postponing the maiden flight to 2016 and deliveries to commence in 2020. In November 2015, the C919 was officially unveiled to Chinese government officials at Shanghai Pudong Airport.

  8. China Eastern Airlines Commitment (2016): Shanghai based China Eastern Airlines declared its commitment to being the first customer and operator of the C919, adding a significant endorsement to the C919 programme.

  9. C919 Maiden Flight (May 2017): After facing multiple delays, the C919 finally achieved its maiden flight in May 2017, taking off from Shanghai Pudong Airport. This marked a crucial moment in the aircraft development, three years later than originally planned.

  10. Development Standstill due to the COVID-19 Pandemic (2019-2022): In 2019, the progression of the COMAC C919 development encountered a hiatus as China implemented a lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak originating in Wuhan. Amid a surge in daily cases, China closed its borders, and prominent cities experienced widespread desolation due to imposition of lockdown measures. Despite subsequent reopening of borders by other nations, China’s continued closure impeded COMAC’s operations, leading to the suspension of test flight and a significant delay of two additional years to the C919 programme.

  11. Type Certificate & First Delivery (2022): In September 2022, the C919 received its type certificate from the CAAC. By December 2022, COMAC delivered the first C919 to China Eastern Airlines in Shanghai, a milestone in the aircraft commercial readiness.

  12. Commercial Operations (2023): In May 2023, the C919 completed its first commercial flight from Shanghai to Beijing. In December 2023, the COMAC C919 made its debut outside of mainland China with a low flypast over Hong Kong’s iconic Victoria Harbour.


COMAC C919 Variants

COMAC currently offers two variants of the C919 – the C919ST and the C919ER. The C919ST, the standard model, accommodates up to 192 seats in a single-class configuration, with a range of 2200nm. Contrarily, the C919ER, also recognised as the Extended Range variant, boasts a higher Maximum Take-Off Weight of 78,900kg compared to the C919ST’s MTOW of 75,100kg. The ER variant extends its range to 3000nm.


In December 2023, COMAC unveiled plans to introduce two additional variants of the C919 – the C919 Stretched variant and the C919 Shortened variant. These concepts, unveiled at the Shanghai International Commercial Aviation & Aerospace Industry Exhibition, aim to emulate variations seen in the Airbus A320 Family and the Boeing 737 MAX Family jets.


The C919 Stretched variant aligns with the trend towards larger single-aisle aircraft development such as the Airbus A321NEO and Boeing 737 MAX10, accommodating a maximum of 210 passengers in a two-class configuration. Conversely, the C919 Shortened variant targets around 140 passengers, competing directly with the Airbus A220/A319NEO and Boeing 737 MAX 7. Besides catering to low-demand routes, the C919 Shortened variant is optimised for high-altitude operations, particularly in China’s mountainous regions such as Tibet.


Given the early stages of the development for the C919, detailed technical specification for the two new variants are currently unavailable.


COMAC’s Aircraft & Developments

COMAC is dedicated to the research and development of its flagship narrow-body airliner, the COMAC C919, strategically positioned to compete with industry leaders like the Airbus A320NEO and Boeing 737 MAX. The successful introduction of the ARJ21, a regional jet accommodating around 90 passengers, further showcases COMAC’s product range. The ARJ21 has gained traction among Chinese carriers, including Xiamen Airlines and China Eastern Airlines, with international interest reflected in order from Brunei GallopAir and Indonesia TransNusa. Additionally, the Republic of Congo government has express interest in a specialised VIP configuration of the ARJ21.


Expanding its portoflio, COMAC is actively developing the long-range wide-body airliner, the COMAC C929. Initally a joint venture with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), tensions led to UAC’s withdrawal in August 2023. Despite, UAC remains committed to supplying parts for the ongoing C929 programme, highlighting the complexities of international collaborations in the aviation industry.


COMAC C919 Orders & Deliveries

As of February 2024, COMAC has delivered only four C919 aircraft, exclusively to China Eastern Airlines. These aircraft, registered as B-919A, B-919C, B-919D, and B-919E, operate domestically within China due to the lack of international certification. Despite being a recent entrant into the narrow-body market, the C919 has secured a substantial 690 firm orders with 120 additional options.



The majority of these orders are from China-based companies and airlines, with only seven carriers, including China Eastern Airlines, placing orders. Notably, Brunei GallopAir, a Brunei based startup airline under Chinese ownership, is the sole foreign carrier with a firm order for 15 C919 aircraft. Another milestone for COMAC were the recent orders announced at the Singapore Airshow, with Tibet Airlines ordering 40 C919s and 10 ARJ-21 aircrafts. China Eastern Airlines leads in orders with 105 firm orders and 15 options, contributing to a total of 250 aircraft ordered by eight airlines.



Aircraft leasing companies and banks such as China Development Bank and BOC Aviation, hold majority of orders, accumulating a combined total of 488 firm orders, representing 69% of the overall confirmed C919 orders. This distribution underscores the influential role of leasing companies and financial institutions in the C919 procurement.



COMAC C919 Competition with two aviation giants – Airbus and Boeing

In the fiercely competitive landscape of commercial aviation, COMAC emerges as a significant contender challenging the established duopoly of Airbus and Boeing within the narrow-body market. Unlike smaller manufacturers such as Bombardier and Embraer which faced challenges in gaining substantial traction, COMAC’s strategic positioning, bolstered by support from the Chinese government and a thriving domestic market, has allowed for notable resilience.


The financial struggles encountered by Bombardier led to a partnership with Airbus, resulting in the rebranding of the C-Series as the Airbus A220. Concurrently, Embraer’s E-Jet series struggled to secure a considerable market share. As COMAC progresses through certification processes and aims for international acceptance, its entry into global arena presents a unique challenge to the longstanding dominance of Airbus and Boeing in the narrow-body airliner sector, reshaping the dynamics of the commercial aviation industry.



Airbus A320NEO

Boeing 737 MAX8

COMAC C919

ICAO Code

A20N

B38M

C919

Length

37.57m

(~123ft)

39.52m

(~129ft)

38.9m

(~127ft)

Wingspan

35.8m

(~117ft)

35.9m

(~1117ft)

35.8m

(~117ft)

Height

11.76m

(~38ft)

12.29m

(~40ft)

11.95m

(~39ft)

Seating Capacity

150 – 180

162 – 178

158 – 192

Max. Payload

20,000kg

(~44,100lbs)

20,800kg

(~46,000lbs)

18,900kg

(41,700lbs)

MTOW

79,000kg

(174,200lbs)

82,600kg

(182,200lbs)

75,100kg

(165,600lbs)

Engines

(Fan ⌀)

CFM LEAP-1A/PW1100G

2.06m (81”)/1.98m (78”)

CFM LEAP-1B

1.76m (69”)

CFM LEAP-1C

1.98m (78”)

Cruise/MMO

M0.78/M0.82

M0.79

M0.78

Ceiling

39,800ft

41,000ft

39,800ft

Range

3400nm (6300km)

3500nm (6400km)

2235nm (4100km)

Take-off

1951m (6400ft)

2500m (8300ft)

2052m (6700ft)

Table 2 Specification comparison for the Airbus A320NEO, Boeing 737 MAX8, and COMAC C919 Aircraft.

The comparative analysis delineates key differences among the A320NEO, 737 MAX8 and C919. In terms of dimensions, the three models share similar sizes with varying wingspans and height, with the A320NEO being the shortest and the 737 MAX8 being the longest. While the C919 competes closely with the A320NEO in seating capacity, the 737 MAX8 surpasses both with a capacity of 178 passengers.


Photo by Carlos Monforte

In performance metrics, the C919 exhibits somewhat constrained specifications, featuring a maximum payload of 18,900kg and a Maximum Take-Off Weight of 75,100kg, trailing behind its Airbus and Boeing counterparts. All three aircraft demonstrate the capability to ascend above 39,000ft at speeds of approximately M0.78, with the A320NEO and C919 outperforming the MAX8 in take-off roll, requiring slightly over 2000m of runway.


All three aircraft offer CFM International engines, with Airbus providing an additional option for Pratt & Whitney engines, while COMAC collaborates with AVIC for proprietary C919 powerplants.


A notable challenge for the C919 is its certification status. While the A320NEO and 737 MAX have obtained certifications, the C919 is in the process of securing international approvals, limiting its operational scope primarily to the domestic market until it completes the necessary regulatory requirements. It is with hope that the COMAC C919 would see more international appearances, and perhaps even the start of operations beyond China in the near future.


 



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