China wanted to have its own large passenger plane. After decades of fattening the pockets of foreign manufacturers, Boeing
The result: Sixteen years and tens of billions of dollars later, a single-body airliner called the C919 sits on the runway, ready to win approval from Chinese regulators to challenge the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo in the hottest part of the commercial jet market. One of the six test aircraft is expected to be put into service by China Eastern Airlines before the end of the year.
The catch: Because foreign suppliers have been reluctant to provide state-of-the-art components for fear of the Chinese ruining their technology, the C919 isn’t a cutting-edge product that keeps its Western rivals up at night. — at least for now.
“The C919 is yesterday’s technology available today,” said aviation consultant Michael Boyd Forbes. “Domestically, the open question is how extensive the damage is [Chinese Communist Party] is going to do to Chinese carriers by forcing them to fly these things.’
The Chinese government is believed to have poured staggering sums of money into the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), which has been tasked with developing the C919, as well as a smaller regional jet already on the market and a wide-body aircraft in partnership with Russia that has made minimal progress. Scott Kennedy, an expert on the Chinese economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believes that Comac has received between $49 billion and $72 billion from its inception in 2008 to 2020. Six years after the C919 was expected to enter service, any commercial logic that might have been in the project initially has been overshadowed by politics and national pride, Western observers say.
“Xi Jinping basically attached himself to that plane,” Kennedy said Forbes. “Its cost or time doesn’t really matter as long as they make the plane.”
While the Chinese flag may adorn the airframe and wings that were made in China, today’s planes differ in the technology inside them – and for that Comac has had to rely mostly on foreign suppliers. Of the approximately 80 major suppliers listed on Airframer.com for the C919, only seven are Chinese, and seven are joint ventures between foreign and Chinese companies, Kennedy notes.
While it is unclear what technology the Western companies supplied, it is believed to have been held back by a reluctance to promote the growth of Chinese competitors and fears of intellectual property theft, which were highlighted by federal prosecutors last year. a Chinese spy which targeted aerospace companies. “The vendor had to go out of their way to offer the latest and greatest,” said Richard Aboulafia, a consultant at AeroDynamic Advisory.
Perhaps the most important part – the motors – comes from CFM, a joint venture between General Electric
Thanks in part to its second-tier technology, the C919 falls far short in one key area of performance: range. Comac says the airliner will be able to fly about 2,500 nautical miles, about a third less than the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX.
That rules out the use of the C919 on hundreds of routes around the world already served by the A320 and 737 MAX, which Boyd says is a deal-killer for selling the plane overseas.
The purchase price of the C919 may be lower than — 653 million yuan, roughly $90 million, but it’s expensive and time-consuming for airlines to train pilots and mechanics to transition to a new type of plane, Boyd said. “Without any corresponding reduction in operating costs or performance advantage over the A320 or 737, the acquisition of the C919 does not make business sense,” he said.
Comac has announced hundreds of domestic orders for the C919, but these are largely aimed at Chinese financial institutions. “They’re there to help the team,” Kennedy said. Observers question the durability of many of the orders, as well as Comac’s ability to ramp up production quickly. Aerospace consultancy Teal Group estimates it will produce 39 aircraft by 2029.
China’s economy may be slowing and Covid restrictions are depressing travel, but in the long term, many industry observers still expect Chinese airlines to need a lot of Western aircraft. Boeing forecasts that China will deliver 8,485 passenger aircraft over the next 20 years, representing approximately 20% of the global market.
Boeing’s share may be in doubt, as the Chinese government has frozen the US company’s plane deliveries to the country following the crash of two MAX jets and the US trade war with China that began during the Trump administration.
This trade war has led to delays in getting the C919 to the regulatory finish line. Since the end of 2020, the US government has required American companies to apply for special licenses to export to any organizations associated with the Chinese military.
The risk for the Chinese government is that if the U.S. grows frustrated with what it perceives as unfair competition — like, say, demanding that Chinese airlines buy domestic planes — it could cut off component sales altogether. The warning shot came last year when Canada refused to approve an export license for Canadian company Pratt & Whitney’s engines for an 80-seat turboprop plane being developed by Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation. It will take China 10 to 15 years to remake the C919 with fully Chinese content, Abulafia believes.
The optimistic view is that the C919 is an expensive upfront payment to create a foothold in the aerospace industry that will lead to better technology down the road, but the long development timelines in the aerospace industry mean it won’t pay for itself anytime soon, Kennedy said. which contrasts with China’s successful efforts to move up the value chain in faster-growing industries such as wireless telecommunications equipment. “It’s going to look like a white elephant for a while.”
Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said last year that Comac would need time to demonstrate the reliability and maturity of the C919, but he expected it to capture at least some market share. “Maybe by the end of the decade we’ll go from a duopoly to a triopoly on single-aisle aircraft,” he said.
Boyd believes that China’s commercial aerospace industry is essentially still on the cutting edge.
“China is not far behind in airliner programs,” he said. “Actually, they haven’t started yet.”