Despite the industry-wide upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese airframer Comac broke new ground in 2020.

It scored new orders from Chinese carriers, and delivered its ARJ21 regional aircraft to the country’s three largest carriers — Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines.


Source: Comac

Will 2021 be the year the Comac C919 finally enters service?

But if 2020 was the year of the ARJ21, then 2021 could be the year of the C919 narrowbody programme.

Fresh off a high in 2020, Comac will be pinning high hopes on the C919 programme, which it hopes will compete with the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 family.

Already, the full test fleet of six prototypes are up and flying, and, as at the end of November, the Chinese airframer received the type inspection authorisation for the programme, paving the way for final flight testing and certification.

Comac is also looking to get the C919 certified and delivered to launch customer China Eastern next year, in what is the clearest indication of timelines since it quietly acknowledged a shift in dates in 2019. 

FlightGlobal reported in 2019 that the C919 timeline had been shifted to the right, as Comac needed about two to three years for certification and delivery. This meant that the narrowbody is likely to enter service in 2021 earliest, instead of 2020.

However, a looming sanction war between China and the US could threaten to derail progress on the narrowbody programme. The tit-for-tat came about after the US approved billions of dollars in potential arms sales to Taiwan, which China regards as its own, but is also part of a long-brewing trade war between the two superpowers.

The C919 uses the Leap-1C engine made by CFM International, a joint venture between the USA’s GE Aviation and France’s Safran. Its communication and navigation systems is made via a joint venture between China Electronics Technology Avionics Company and Raytheon Technologies’ subsidiary Collins Aerospace. Aviage Systems, which produces the C919’s avionics, is a joint venture between General Electric and Avic.

A US-China aerospace breakup — where China blocks US-made passenger aircraft and related aerospace components from being sold in China — could cripple the C919 programme, creating what observers says would be a “nightmare scenario”.

Indeed, much as 2021 could see Comac break new ground, a new year with tough sanctions on US aerospace products could also break Comac, effectively clipping the wings of its C919 programme for a few more foreseeable years. 

C919 orders, as at 26 November 2020
OperatorTotal On OrderTotal On OptionTotal LOI
ABC Financial Leasing 45 0 30
AVIC International Leasing 0 0 30
Air China 5 15 0
BOC Aviation 20 0 0
BoComm Leasing 30 0 0
CCB Financial Leasing 50 0 0
CDB Aviation 10 0 0
CIB Leasing 0 0 20
CITIC Group 18 0 18
CMB Financial Leasing 0 0 30
China Aircraft Leasing Company 20 0 0
China Eastern Airlines 5 15 0
China Everbright Financial Leasing 0 0 30
China Express Airlines 0 0 50
China Huarong Financial Leasing 0 0 30
China Southern Airlines 5 15 0
City Airways 10 0 0
Clover Aircraft Leasing 0 0 50
GECAS 0 0 20
HNA Group 0 0 200
Hainan Airlines 20 0 0
Hebei Airlines 0 0 20
Huabao Leasing 0 0 30
Huaxia Financial Leasing 0 0 20
ICBC Leasing 42 0 55
Joy Air 0 0 20
Nuclear Construction Financial Leasing 0 0 40
PuRen Airlines 0 0 0
SPDB Financial Leasing 5 0 15
Sichuan Airlines 20 0 0

Source: Cirium fleets data

Still, Comac can take comfort in the fact that it is still in a cushy position, at least compared to its peers.

Mitsubishi Aircraft, its rival airframer from Japan, will enter 2021 with its flagship SpaceJet regional aircraft in an effective programme freeze. Even if economic conditions improve in 2021, it seems unlikely that Mitsubishi will restart the programme — at least not immediately. 

The company said in late October: “We will work to review where we stand, make improvements, and assess a possible programme restart.”

If 2020 was the year Asian airframers treaded diverging paths, 2021 will continue to see a different trajectory for both Chinese and Japanese airframers.