China rolls out indigenous C919 jet in a bid to compete with Boeing, Airbus

C919 comes off assembly line after seven years in the making but while orders abound, it may still be a while before the plane gains commercial acceptance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 10:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 6:10pm

Comac C919, the first Chinese-developed passenger jet, rolled off the assembly line in Shanghai on Monday after seven years of development marked by repeated delays.

The single-aisle jet that can seat 158 to 174 passengers is China’s answer to Airbus A320 and Boeing B737 planes as the country seeks to break Western planemakers’ duopoly and move up the manufacturing value chain.

The roll-out means it is ready for ground tests before making its maiden flight, which is now scheduled for next year after missing a previous deadline at the end of this year.

Watch: China's first home-made passenger jet C919 finally rolls out

The project, launched in 2008, has suffered repeated delays though it has already garnered 517 orders from 21 customers – all Chinese except three. Delivery to its first customer, ICBC Leasing, is expected to come after 2018 as the plane has yet to be tested and certified by aviation authorities.

The C919 is China’s first self-developed large passenger jet and counts 16 international companies, including General Electric, Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, as suppliers for core components such as engines and avionics.

China has long wanted to develop its own jets and challenge Boeing and Airbus’ global dominance in the aerospace manufacturing business that is worth trillions of dollars.

In September, China signed up to 300 Boeing planes and only last month ordered 130 Airbus planes. It is forecast to need nearly more than 6,000 planes worth nearly US$1 trillion in the next 20 years.

Comac said the C919 will also come with freighter and executive jet versions. Industry insiders say it would be a long way before the C919 is seen competing against Western models in international skies, with certification being a key barrier for its export and pilot shortage another.

“I have no doubt about the aircraft’s safety or performance when it hits the market, else it would not be allowed,” said a Chinese pilot with more than 25 years of experience who did not want to be identified. “But I am not sure I would want to forgo my Boeing licence and switch to fly the C919.”

As pilots are trained and licensed to fly individual aircraft models, they are usually not allowed to hold licences for models by different aircraft makers at the same time, even though they can do a conversion training to switch.

“We will see the C919 competing for domestic market share against both Boeing and Airbus. We think there would need to be very competitive pricing outside China to make inroads into Europe,” said Owen Geach, chief commercial officer of aircraft appraiser IBA.

GE Capital Aviation Services, the world’s largest aircraft leasing firm and a unit of C919’s engine supplier GE, has ordered 20 C919s, making it the largest foreign customer. Germany-based PuRen Airlines and Thailand-based City Airways, both start-up airlines set up by Chinese investors, have ordered 7 and 10 respectively.

"The C919 with a average spec has an estimated appraised value of US$36 million compared with US$45 million for a A320-200 and US$47 million for the B737-800 with average specs," according to IBA.

Comac’s other product, the smaller regional jet ARJ21, is seeking certification from the US Federal Aviation Authority, which will allow the plane be sold to Western markets. It had been certified by the Civil Aviation Administration of China in December, seven years after it came off the assembly line in December 2007. It is expected to be delivered to its launch customer Chengdu Airlines this month.