The certification of Comac’s C919 narrowbody jet – announced in time for China’s National Day celebrations – has been hailed by commentators in the country as a major milestone – and a source of national pride – for the domestic aerospace industry.
Yet, it is only the start of the long journey for the Shanghai-based airframer, one that is overshadowed by a slowing economy and more crucially, rising geopolitical tensions.
On 29 September, a rather low-key – by Chinese standards at least – certification ceremony took place in Beijing, more than five years since the first C919 test aircraft embarked on its maiden sortie.
While the actual certification ceremony took place on 29 September, it was only a day later that Chinese officials publicly disclosed the news.
Between when images of the ceremony first showed up on Chinese social media, to when the official statement of President Xi congratulating Comac was released on a Friday evening, there was a period of unusual silence from state media and the airframer.
In contrast, when the airframer’s ARJ21 regional jet was certificated by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), news of it was announced on the same day.
For now, as Comac – and to an extent, China – revels in hitting a milestone for a programme it hopes will rival Boeing’s 737 Max and Airbus’s A320neo family, it must confront a number of realities.
For one, the airframer now has to look towards building up its C919 orderbook, or risk the programme being a one-trick pony.
So far, China Eastern remains the launch – and only – customer, though Comac is always quick to point out that it holds hundreds of commitments. The first C919 is expected to be delivered by this year, a statement from the airframer states, and with China Eastern only holding five firm orders, deliveries could end by next year.
As AeroDynamic Advisory managing director Richard Aboulafia puts it: “Comac needs to learn how to build it, and in a consistent way.”
“[They] need to establish a product support network, with 24-hour AOG [support], and it needs to be everywhere the C919 flies. That’s a massive investment,” he tells FlightGlobal.
Then there is also the desire for type certification beyond the Chinese mainland. When flight testing was in its infancy, Comac talked up big plans to have the EU regulators certify the type, with US certification not too far away.
Yet, 2017 is no 2022: relations between the USA and China have gone sour, and risk continuing to go downhill. While EU relations appear to be less acrimonious, a recent series of landmark orders by Chinese carriers for Airbus narrowbodies appears to indicate a preference – for now – for Western jets.
Therein also lies the proverbial elephant in the room: that the programme is all but entirely reliant on Western technology, from engines to avionics and cockpit systems.
Indeed, Aboulafia also points out that the C919 is effectively “a Western jet with a Chinese veneer and a Chinese final assembly line”.
This has meant that in recent months, delays in meeting testing deadlines were largely due in part to US-led sanctions. A 27 September report from Reuters, citing unnamed sources, said the programme faces the likelihood of missing “certification and production targets”, amid stricter US export rules.
Since December 2020, the USA has tightened export regulations to China, with companies deemed as having links to the Chinese military subject to special export licensing requirements.
China, on its part, is building up a domestic aerospace industry to wean itself off Western technology. This includes a local power plant, the AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engine (ACAE) CJ-1000, for the C919. Little is clear about progress with the CJ-1000, but Beijing had originally planned for it enter service in the early 2020s - a goal that has already been missed.
Beijing was silent about progress with homegrown technology for the C919 when the type was certificated on 29 September, but commentators online have been calling for a “truly Chinese” programme.
The danger involved in relying on Western engines for the C919 is starkly highlighted by China’s experience with the AVIC MA700. Beijing’s detention of two Canadian citizens on dubious charges in 2018 resulted in Ottawa’s decision to block the export of the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150C engines, creating a major programme roadblock.
Still, any effort to fill the C919 with Chinese technology will be expensive and long-drawn, says Aboulafia: “Reinventing the C919 as a true Chinese jet would cost tens of billions of dollars and take at least 15 years, an effort that would dwarf the resources needed to merely create the C919 in its current form.”
“The more [China] limits imports to give the C919 a higher domestic presence, the more likely it becomes that the US and its allies simply kill it, the way they killed the MA700,” he adds.