The C919, a 190-seat commercial jet, won’t take to the air for at least half a decade, and not enter service for at least a couple of years after that, but it will be the largest home-built airliner to be constructed in China, and will mark a significant advance for an industry Beijing has earmarked as a national champion and global competitor. Models of the plane, to be built by Shanghai-based Comac, an acronym for Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China and part of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corp. of China (Avic), have gone on show in Hong Kong. (It was announced in March.)
Comac already builds a 90-seat jet, the ARJ-21, for which it says it has around 200 orders on its books. The new jet liner is potentially competitive bad news down the road for Airbus and Boeing, the two global aerospace giants who see the Chinese market as one of their great hopes for the future, and whose A320 and 737 models now dominate the regional jet section of the market. The overall Chinese market for commercial aircraft is forecast to expand fivefold over the next 20 years. That means orders for more than 2,000 aircraft to scrap over, as China expands it aerospace industry’s focus from military to civilian. Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines can all be expected to do their patriotic duty.
It would be rash to assume that the Chinese plane maker will stay third in the trinity of Airbus, Boeing and Comac. Equally, the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated. Comac is starting from scratch, having been set up only last year with the purpose of developing China’s first airliners. It has given itself eight to 10 years to develop the C919, compared to the six it typically takes the more practiced Airbus or Boeing. It will need to rely on foreign-made engines, avionics and other components for its early models as it learns to build its own, and perfects its aviation grade aluminum and composites. It will also have to learn how to get its airliners internationally certified if it wants global sales. The ARJ-21 isn’t yet certified in the U.S. for example.