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Some doubt that the COMAC C919 will sell outside China. But can it replace Airbus-Boeing narrowbodies within China itself? And if so, when?

COMAC is developing its C919 in China methodically, aiming for certification later this year. The aircraft has already accumulated numerous orders, although their exact numbers of firm orders are not clear. Including options, the aircraft has nearly a thousand orders, almost all of them from China. Analysts estimate its potential sales at 1,200. COMAC has stated that they’re expecting to sell 2,000.

With COMAC being a state-owned company and plenty of state-owned airlines in China, there certainly was a market solid enough for the launch of the C919. The prospects of the jet elsewhere, are less clear. The design of the C919 is fairly conventional, with aluminium being the choice material for the fuselage and wings.

The C919. Photo: COMAC

Analysts think that the plane will have similar efficiency to a 737NG or A320ceo. And this is a large part of why the COMAC C919 has limited appeal outside China. Also, COMAC has little or no experience with worldwide sales and support, for such a project. GECAS has ten orders and another ten options for the aircraft. Beyond that, there is little going on with this jet, internationally.

Or is there? The supply chain of the COMAC C919 is largely dependent on suppliers outside China. And this is where we get to its prospects in its home country. Some suggest that with the size of China’s own market, the jet doesn’t need to have an international career. But this is more than a bit misleading.

COMAC C919 Debuts Air Show Performance

 

Aviation Supply Chain In China And The COMAC C919

If they had to, there is little question that COMAC could scale up C919 production in China, to meet everyone’s single-aisle needs. But this is only as far as the bare airframe (minus all systems) is concerned. The landing gear, ALL avionics and most aircraft systems are coming from outside the country. The plane is Chinese, but its supply chain isn’t.

Generally speaking, the bare system-less airframe of a conventional single-aisle jet, represents around 30% of the finished aircraft’s cost. This puts to bed the theory that the COMAC C919 could beat Boeing-Airbus offerings on price, in China or elsewhere. But more importantly, it means that it will take a long time for COMAC to accelerate its production.

The ARJ21. Photo: COMAC

This isn’t a worry for China. The ARJ21 was the first step in a long process of expanding their aviation industry, and the C919 is second. Currently, the jet uses CFM LEAP-1C engines. A Chinese engine (ACAE CJ-1000A) will come at the end of the decade at the earliest, according to Chinese sources.

It’s safe to assume that companies in China are working on other indigenous systems for the COMAC C919. But if they all have similar timelines, the jet is unlikely to ever eclipse the A320 and 737 families, at home. Even if COMAC can make the airframes fast enough, their supply chain network simply won’t be able to cope. Even Airbus is reportedly struggling to get its suppliers to increase production. But this isn’t to say that the A320 and 737 jet families won’t suffer.

 

A Question Of Timing?

Airbus has already stated that China’s COMAC C919 will make the Boeing-Airbus duopoly into a “triopoly”. But in the meantime, Chinese airlines will need their A320s and 737s. This is particularly relevant right now, with the 737 MAX returning to the skies in Asia. Some have argued that China could be delaying its own approval of the 737 MAX for political reasons. The point is that even if this is the case, China can’t continue doing it for very long.

It is impossible to tell what China’s indigenous supply chain will look like, 10+ years down the line. With a fast enough development pace in this industry in China, COMAC might even have something newer than the C919 by then. And more to the point, both Airbus and Boeing should have something newer by then, too – particularly the latter.

COMAC C919 Debuts Air Show Performance

The C919. Photo: COMAC

There is much more to this. COMAC or subsidiaries making their own C919 avionics, landing gear and other parts in China, is one thing. Certifying them is another. Even if only Chinese airlines buy the jet, flying it out of China means certifying any and all new components.

At any rate, the introduction of the COMAC C919 with airlines in China will change some aspects of aviation. Trade watchdogs in the EU and US certainly think so. They both stated that they will be looking at China closely, after settling the EU-US tariff war. However, this change won’t happen overnight. Airbus and Boeing have some time to react to the C919.

But react, they should.