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COMAC: A Chinese Challenger?, by Travel Radar Correspondent David Hopwood

Established in May 2008 COMAC (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China) is a state-owned aerospace manufacturer based in Shanghai. With the size of the Chinese aviation market expected to exceed that of the US in the near future and the technological capacity of the economy, the clear intention of its establishment is to break the global near-duopoly of Airbus and Boeing.

The C919 © COMAC

The first aircraft produced—which had its maiden flight in November 2008—is the ARJ21 Xiangfeng, (‘Soaring Phoenix’) Advanced Regional Jet. The ARJ was introduced into service by Chengdu Airlines in June 2016. The -700 series baseline model has a capacity of up to 95 passengers, and the stretched -900 up to 105 and a range of 2200 km for the -700 and as far as 3300 km for the extended range -900. Both models are powered by the GE34-10A engines.

The ARJ21 has been plagued by delays, noise and other problems and has been rejected by many commentators as vastly inferior to comparable offerings from Bombardier and Embraer; analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group takes a dim view. He said the ARJ is ‘overweight and stunningly obsolete…with no relevance outside of China.’

COMAC has bigger hopes for its larger aircraft, the C919, designed as a direct competitor to the 737-MAX and the A320neo. The C919 first flew in May 2017 and commercial deliveries are expected for China Eastern next year. It is expected to carry up to 168 passengers over a distance of up to 5500 km for the extended range variant. The aircraft will be powered by the CFM LEAP, the PW1000G or the local ACAE CJ-1000A engine. With the problems surrounding the ARJ21, there are doubts that the C919 will be ready as advertised and by then may be overtaken technologically by Airbus and Boeing. However COMAC has 305 firm orders, including from Air China, China Southern and China Eastern and over 1000 commitments.

A major hurdle for COMAC is certification. Only the Chinese authority (and a few some countries in Asia and Africa) have approved the aircraft. For a significant expansion, the FAA and European EASA would also need to certify.

A major advantage to the emerging markets of Africa and Asia is the price; the list price of the C919 is reported to be in the region of $50 million- about half the price of the A320neo. The debacle of the 737-MAX is also playing into COMAC’s hands.

In partnership with Russia, COMACs next project is the so-called CR929, a widebody with a range of 12 000 km and carrying 280 passengers.

At the moment COMAC is certainly a small player, both in the world and even within China. But with state support and the country’s undoubted prowess in manufacturing and technology, the western manufacturers are no doubt watching carefully.

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