Co­mac C919 – Emerg­ing Chal­lenge to Ex­ist­ing Play­ers

The C919 is set to sig­nif­i­cantly change the narrow-body air­liner seg­ment in the next three years or so when its de­liv­er­ies com­mence

SP's Aviation - - Table of Contents - By GROUP CAP­TAIN A.K. SACHDEV (RETD)

The narrow-body, sin­gle-aisle air­liner mar­ket has

been a duopolis­tic one for over two decades with Air­bus A320 and Boe­ing 737 fam­i­lies driv­ing it across the globe. En­hance­ments to th­ese two ba­sic mod­els kept the mar­ket alive and com­pet­i­tive over the years un­til both de­cided to re-en­gine their steeds while re­tain­ing their ba­sic de­sign. The re­sults are the A320­neo and the Boe­ing 737 MAX and their ver­sions with new en­gines and mi­nor de­sign changes promis­ing up to 15 per cent fuel sav­ing. The par­al­lel moves were aimed at avoid­ing the high risk and in­vest­ment in de­sign­ing new air­craft al­to­gether although a Boe­ing ini­tia­tive on ‘Mid­dle of the Mar­ket’ air­craft is un­der­way to find a so­lu­tion to bridge the gap be­tween a narrow-body and a wide-body and their cor­re­spond­ing ranges. The narrow-body seg­ment is a hotly con­tested and lu­cra­tive one and there are new play­ers want­ing to en­ter. A mod­er­ate dis­rup­tion

was caused by Bom­bardier’s sale of 75 C-Se­ries air­craft to Delta Air­lines in 2016. Last year, Air­bus pulled off a coup of sorts by ac­quir­ing a 50.01 per cent stake in the Bom­bardier’s prized C-Se­ries air­liner pro­gramme with­out any up­front in­vest­ment. The deal is ex­pected to land the en­tire C-Se­ries pro­gramme in Air­bus’ lap in around five years. While the ba­sic Air­bus A320/ Boe­ing 737 de­signs are fo­cused on the 180-seat cabin lay­out, the C-Se­ries has a 100-seat ver­sion (CS100) and a 160-seat one (CS300). The Embraer chal­lenge in the arena of­fers 88-seat, 106-seat and 132-seat vari­ants of the E-2 fam­ily. Boe­ing is se­ri­ously look­ing at a deal with Embraer akin to the Air­bus-Bom­bardier one. The Mit­subishi Regional Jet has an 80-seater and a 92-seater in terms of a weak chal­lenge. A sim­i­lar player is the Chi­nese ARJ21 with 90 seats. Rus­sian com­pany Irkut is also work­ing on two ver­sions of MC-21, one with 165 seats and the

other with 211 seats. This ar­ti­cle looks at China’s C919, a se­ri­ous con­tender in the narrow-body space which, with a 168-seat cabin ver­sion and a mod­ern de­sign, ap­pears set to muz­zle its way into the narrow-body space in the near fu­ture.


The C919 is man­u­fac­tured by Com­mer­cial Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion of China (CO­MAC), a Shang­hai-based com­pany, which was formed in 2008 and func­tions as the main air­craft man­u­fac­turer for large civil pas­sen­ger air­craft pro­grammes. Its in­ter­net site de­clares that it ad­heres to the prin­ci­ple of “de­vel­op­ment with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics” — to bol­ster China’s claims of self re­liant tech­no­log­i­cal progress. Chi­nese sources re­fer to the C919 as a “trunk liner” and CO­MAC it­self terms it as “a short-medium range com­mer­cial trunk liner”. It has a lay­out of 158 to 168 seats and a range of 4,075 to 5,555km. Ac­cord­ing to CO­MAC, the eco­nomic life of the C919 is de­signed to be 90,000 fly­ing hours/30 cal­en­dar years. CO­MAC claims that the fuel con­sump­tion and di­rect op­er­at­ing cost-per-seat-per-km would be lower than that of “sim­i­lar ex­ist­ing air­planes” (read Air­bus A-320 and Boe­ing 737).

Both Pratt & Whit­ney and CFM In­ter­na­tional of­fered to pro­vide en­gines for the C919. The lat­ter was fi­nally se­lected. CFM In­ter­na­tional, a joint ven­ture com­pany be­tween GE Avi­a­tion of the United States and Safran Air­craft En­gines of France started the Leading Edge Avi­a­tion Propul­sion (LEAP) pro­gramme in 2005 in­cor­po­rat­ing tech­nolo­gies that CFM de­vel­oped as part of its LEAP56 tech­nol­ogy ac­qui­si­tion pro­gramme. The en­gine was of­fi­cially launched as LEAP-X on July 13, 2008, the year that C919 pro­gramme was launched, as an in­tended successor to the CFM56 fam­ily pop­u­lar with con­tem­po­rary narrow-body, sin­gle-aisle air­craft. The other con­tender for that seg­ment is Pratt & Whit­ney PW1000G. The LEAP fam­ily has three vari­ants: 1A which pow­ers the A320­neo and pro­duces 24,500 to 35,000lbs thrust, 1B for the 737MAX fam­ily which pro­duces 23,000 to 28,000lbs thrust and 1C for the C919 with 27,890 to 30,000lbs thrust. As can be seen, the C919 en­gine (LEAP 1C) pro­duces more thrust than the Boe­ing 737MAX one (LEAP 1B). Chi­nese AVIC Com­mer­cial Air­craft En­gine Co was also tasked with de­vel­op­ing an in­dige­nous en­gine to be used with the air­craft. Its ACAE CJ-1000A was un­veiled at the 2012 Zhuhai Air Show; but there is no news of its in­te­gra­tion into the C919 yet.


A to­tal of six air­craft are planned to be pro­duced for the over thou­sand com­pli­ance ver­i­fi­ca­tion tests nec­es­sary for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. The first air­craft, AC 101, rolled out on Novem­ber 2, 2015 and the first test flight took place on May 5, 2017. In Novem­ber last year, it car­ried out its first in­ter-city flight to Yan­liang, Xian, a dis­tance of about 1300km. The sec­ond air­craft, AC 102, flew first in Jan­uary this year. The pro­gramme has suf­fered de­lays and the cur­rent pro­jec­tion for the de­liv­ery of the first air­craft to a cus­tomer is 2021, five years be­yond the orig­i­nal tar­get of 2016. If the first de­liv­ery takes place in 2021, it would be 13 years after the launch of the pro­gramme. One rea­son for the de­lays in flight test­ing is that Shang­hai is one of the busiest air­ports in the coun­try.One rea­son for fer­ry­ing out the first air­craft to Xian is that it can be tested there in a less crowded airspace.


Ac­cord­ing to the CO­MAC News Cen­tre, a to­tal of 785 or­ders have been booked for C919 from 27 do­mes­tic and for­eign cus­tomers, largely Chi­nese air­lines. How­ever, air­wor­thi­ness cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is a prob­lem as of now and likely to re­main for some time. The Civil Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion of China (CAAC) cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is eas­ily ob­tained; but is not ac­cepted by most na­tions out­side China. An ap­pli­ca­tion for type cer­ti­fi­ca­tion was made to Euro­pean Avi­a­tion Safety Agency (EASA) in April 2017; but there is no news of an ap­pli­ca­tion to US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Author­ity (FAA). In the ab­sence of any in­ter­na­tional cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, the C919 could not fly to the Sin­ga­pore Air Show this year, which is some­thing CO­MAC would have loved to do to im­prove its mar­ket prospects. In­ci­den­tally, China’s 90-seat ARJ2, which ob­tained its Type Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from CAAC in 2014 and Pro­duc­tion Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in 2017, is yet to ob­tain EASA or FAA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and hence is fly­ing only in Chi­nese airspace with Chi­nese users in limited num­bers. The prospects for C919’s cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ap­pear a lit­tle brighter on ac­count of the sev­eral Amer­i­can and Euro­pean stake­hold­ers in the C919’s suc­cess. GE is one of C919’s con­trac­tors, sup­ply­ing on­board main­te­nance and flight-data record­ing sys­tems through a joint ven­ture with Avi­a­tion In­dus­try of China. The plane’s en­gines come from CFM In­ter­na­tional, GE’s joint ven­ture with Safran Air­craft En­gines. Other sup­pli­ers in­clude Honey­well In­ter­na­tional and United Tech­nolo­gies Cor­po­ra­tion. CO­MAC also has or­ders for the jet from GE Cap­i­tal Avi­a­tion Ser­vices, an air­craft and en­gine leas­ing com­pany. Hope­fully, th­ese con­nec­tions will pro­vide a lobby to progress C919 cer­ti­fi­ca­tion with EASA and FAA.

The A320­neo with the Pratt & Whit­ney en­gine is pass­ing through a dif­fi­cult pe­riod with sig­nif­i­cant en­gine prob­lems on air­craft al­ready de­liv­ered to clients. The is­sue has not gone down well with users and the fact that Air­bus has­tened a bit into the de­liv­ery phase to out­run Boe­ing’s 737MAX has not done the A320­neo prospects any good. The fate of the Boe­ing 737MAX with an­other Pratt & Whit­ney en­gine is not yet cer­tain and time will tell whether the type also has prob­lems sim­i­lar to the A320­neo. Should the C919 en­ter ser­vice and have no such prob­lems with its LEAP-1C en­gine, it would au­gur well for its sales. The cost of the C919 can be ex­pected to be com­pet­i­tive on ac­count of lower costs of pro­duc­tion in China.


As the tra­di­tional clas­si­fi­ca­tion of air­lin­ers gets ob­fus­cated by en­larged en­velopes of narrow-body air­craft, the mar­ket is get­ting clut­tered by new op­tions. The largest of the Air­bus A320 fam­ily, the A321LR, is now the long­est range sin­gle-aisle, nar­row­body air­liner ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing 240 pas­sen­gers over a range of 7400km. Smaller sin­gle-aisle air­craft are fill­ing the gaps be­tween tur­bo­prop and A320/737 fam­i­lies. The ad­vent of C919 is likely to im­p­ing on the A320/737 mar­ket prospects the most and its ex­pected com­pet­i­tive cost is sure to cre­ate a rip­ple in the nar­row­body space. The an­nual pro­duc­tion was tar­geted at 150 planes by 2020. Even with de­lays in EASA/FAA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, the sup­ply to Chi­nese mar­ket will give it five to ten years within which to get its cer­ti­fi­ca­tions through. Dur­ing that pe­riod, the C919s will re­place the A320s/737s in the Chi­nese mar­ket. To sum up, the C919 is set to sig­nif­i­cantly re­order the narrow-body air­liner seg­ment in the next three years or so when its de­liv­er­ies com­mence.

The cost of the C919 can be ex­pected to be com­pet­i­tive on ac­count of lower costs of pro­duc­tion in China

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