ANALYSIS: Order book for C919 hints at strong prospects for programme

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Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) has, in recent months, received a slew of orders and commitments for its in-development C919 aircraft, bringing its total order backlog for the narrowbody to 215.

The airframer has seen a steady growth in its order backlog over the past 12 months, with the most recent being a purchase agreement on 9 December for 20 aircraft from China Aircraft Leasing Company.

This time last year Comac had booked just 100 orders for the twinjet, leading some industry observers to question the viability of the programme, particularly given its stated aim of taking on the combined might of Airbus and Boeing in the 160-seat narrowbody segment.

Although the backlog now looks healthier, the majority of orders and commitments are from the Chinese market, leading to concerns about the robustness of the order book.

However, Chris Seymour, an analyst at Flightglobal's Ascend data and consultancy business, said the C919 still has strong prospects.

He said: "Although the initial customers are Chinese leasing companies and airlines, we expected that. It's where the type will be proven."

In a recently released 20-year forecast, Comac said that China's fleet will amount to 5,367 aircraft by 2030, up from 1,616 in 2010 and account for 15% of the world's total airliners. Its target is to grab one third of the domestic market over the next 20 years.

However, it is looking beyond China's borders as well. Low cost carrier Ryanair has already expressed an interest in the C919 and Ascend's Seymour is upbeat on its international prospects. "I'm sure it will attract Western orders before it enters service," he said.

He pointed to the strong Western contribution to the project, including Rockwell Collins avionics and Nexcelle nacelles and exhaust system. The C919 is powered by the CFM International Leap-1C - a variant of the engine that will appear on both the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max - another key selling point.

With demand growing, Comac is also progressing with the development of the aircraft in a bid to meet the target of first flight by 2014.

A review committee recently concluded the preliminary design phase of the aircraft after studying its overall structural strength, technology and avionics.

The joint definition phase has also been completed and the aircraft has now moved to the detailed design phase. After this, the aircraft will undergo testing before batch production begins, said Comac.

"Components for the nose and fuselage of the aircraft will be produced soon," it added, also hinting that more orders are in the pipeline.

Comac still has its work cut out to meet the 2014 target. In addition, the C919 will face many safety certification hurdles before it gets the nod to fly internationally.

The manufacturer, however, has repeatedly expressed confidence in its schedule.

Also of note is the potential collaboration with Bombardier over areas of commonality between its CSeries aircraft - which currently has 133 orders - and the C919. Bombardier president and chief executive Pierre Beaudoin said in a 1 December earnings call that it had identified five areas of commonality between the two programmes. He said: "Our customers are telling us that it's a good idea to work on areas of commonality because it makes life simpler for them."

While nothing is certain for a new aircraft manufacturer attempting to bring a new programme to fruition, the backing of the Chinese government gives the project access to deep pockets and a largely captive domestic market.