Comac makes narrowbody market breakthrough

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Comac has made a breakthrough in China's attempt to break into the narrowbody market after announcing a launch order of up to 100 aircraft for its C919.

Chinese carriers Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, together with lessors CDB Leasing and GE Aviation's leasing arm GECAS came together for a joint signing ceremony at Airshow China 2010 in Zhuhai.

Half of the 100 orders are firm, while the remaining are options, says Comac general manager Jin Zhuanglong. Air China, China Southern and China Eastern have ordered up to 20 C919s each, he adds. GECAS says it has ordered up to 10 aircraft, half of which are firm orders. Jin did not give a detailed breakdown for the remaining orders.

The involvement of GECAS was not a surprise. CFM International, GE's engine joint venture with Snecma, will launch its Leap-X1C powerplant on the aircraft.

"We are pleased to announce our C919 letter of intent today. We look forward to a long association with the Comac team as it continues to build China's commercial aviation industry," says GECAS chief executive Norman CT Liu.

"It is Comac's vision to provide customers with civil aircraft that are safer, more economic, more comfortable and more environmental friendly," says Comac chairman Zhang Qingwei. The orders, he adds, are a vote of confidence in the C919.

The announcement, however, does not appear to faze Airbus and Boeing. The C919 is pitched directly against their A320 and 737 families and is scheduled to enter service before either company comes up with a new generation successor.

But one Boeing official dismissed the C919 as still a "paper plane" that may not be competitive when it enters service. Executives from both companies say that their products will remain in demand in China in the foreseeable future. The four Chinese airlines that ordered the C919 also operate either the A320 or 737, or both, and some have a backlog of orders for the Western alternatives.

The joint definition phase for the C919 is ongoing and scheduled to wrap up early in 2011, after a design review at the end of this year. Comac aims to complete its detailed design work in 2012, have the first flight in 2014, and is eyeing an entry into service in 2016. The company has not said who will launch the aircraft.

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